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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

His Own Facts

James Lamond at Democracy Arsenal flags this portion of President Bush's interview with Charles Gibson:

GIBSON: If the intelligence had been right, would there have been an Iraq war?

BUSH: . . .In other words, if he had had weapons of mass destruction, would there have been a war? Absolutely.

GIBSON: No, if you had known he didn't.

BUSH: Oh, I see what you're saying. You know, that's an interesting question. . . It's hard for me to speculate.

Of course, by the intelligence being right, Gibson means were it to have reflected reality. But for Bush, the intelligence being right means were it to have reflected his version of reality.

The man really does feel entitled to his own set of facts. Of course, we've long suspected that to be the case, but this serves as pretty incontrovertible evidence. A pretty fitting summary of the man and his presidency.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Monday, November 3, 2008

G.I. Jane in Iraq

Somewhere there's a doctoral thesis waiting to be written on Hollywood and the rehabilitation of war in the post-Vietnam era. I'd suggest that G.I. Jane represents the culmination of a trend that began with Officer and a Gentleman and Taps, fully integrating the third wave feminist movement into the military code of honor and combat. I mention it only because by some odd coincidence, I watched G.I. Jane (overdubbed into French) on the télé last night, only to stumble across this Army Times review of a new PBS documentary, "Lioness" (on women who have served in combat roles in Iraq) this morning. As the review and documentary make clear, despite regulatory codes to the contrary, G.I. Jane's central conceit about the exclusion of women from career-enhancing combat roles is increasingly anachronistic.

It's a transformation of the role of women in the military that's being determined by facts on the ground and the particularities of a counterinsurgency with no front lines, a form of "Don't look, don't tell" in the place of "Don't ask, don't tell." The danger here isn't that women will degrade operational capabilities, because by all accounts there's no evidence that they do. It's that because this issue is flying under the radar with no national discussion, problems of sexual harassment and violence directed at women soldiers in the combat zone aren't being systematically addressed.

There's also the fact that in the absence of any systematic policy, or rather in the systematic disregard for stated policy, the ad hoc solutions for women in combat will not address some of the imbalances in terms of career advancement, nor guarantee that the most qualified soldiers find their rightful role. Of course, that's always a problem in the military, but it helps when there's a solid code on which to base any claims, as opposed to statutory restrictions that undermine them.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Promise of COIN, the Pitfalls of Iraq

Without getting into speculating about whether the U.S.-Iraqi SOFA deal will get done or not, the fact that the main sticking point is Iraq's demand for jurisdiction over American soldiers off their bases is telling. Here's Iraqi Vice President Tariq al Hashimi in McClatchy:

"The impression of the Iraqi people is that American troops from time to time exaggerate their reactions, use excessive force and irresponsible behavior," Hashimi said. "We would like to put an end to that. When this happens in the future there must be prosecution of those who are exceeding the limit of the authorities given to them."

This is, in effect, one of the lingering costs of the initial failures in post-invasion Iraq, and an illustration of the ways in which some damage just can't be undone. The Surge (by which I mean the "narrative" of the Surge) has had a major impact on the Stateside image of America's presence in Iraq. What's more, either Gen. David Petraeus has managed to seriously rein in the Blackwater cowboys, or else to seriously rein in the press' coverage of them, because I haven't seen any OK Corral-type stories for a long time.

The Iraq-side image of America's presence in Iraq, on the other hand, does not seem to be as benign. I haven't seen any polling about Iraqi perceptions, but the Iraqi government's negotiating position, to say nothing of the Iraqi parliament's reported hostility to it, suggests that notwithstanding the COIN approach that puts an emphasis on winning the population's allegiance, there is still quite a bit of distrust and resentment of American forces. Which means not so much that the COIN-based Surge was too little, too late, so much as nothing would have been enough.

As Jack Kem's WPR feature article on the Army's new Stability Operations manual makes clear, the Army has learned from its mistakes, which were doctrinally determined. If there's one silver lining perhaps to the Iraq War, it's that it has forced American military doctrine to recognize and codify the fact that contemporary warfare must only be as destructive as is absolutely necessary to defeat the enemy, and not one bit more. It's an incredible evolution in the American conception of warfighting that, if we can avoid the temptation to believe that even that amount of destruction is tolerable in any but the most urgent of cases, represents a victory for rational humanism. The fact that this realization comes from within the military is all the more noteworthy.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Defense & National Security   Iraq   

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Friday, October 10, 2008

COIN as Transfer of Wealth

I've mentioned the impact the financial crisis is likely to have on European resolve with regards to the Afghanistan mission. Here's Charlie from Abu Muqawama on the potential impact Stateside:

But if you think the American public is fickle and short-sighted in the best of times, you ain't seen nothing yet. It's going to be increasingly hard to justifying long-term occupations overseas...not to mention Army and Marine plus-ups (that budget money is going to go to big ticket hardware items like ships and planes, the kinds of things that create jobs in congressional districts).

That touches on something that's been buzzing around in my head for the past week or so. There's a current of thought that argues that industrial production for World War II, more than any of Roosevelt's fiscal policies, pulled America out of the Great Depression. So I'd been considering whether, counterintuitively, the financial crisis might actually lend support to the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars under the logic of economic stimulus. For the moment, I'd wondered whether the structural changes in the American economy from industrial production to information processing undermined that argument.

But Charlie's point, namely that the kind of spending the financial crisis is likely to provoke is diametrically opposed to the needs of COIN operations, leads to another aspect of the current focus on stability and reconstruction operations in America's defense posture that deserves mention. COIN and stability ops are boot heavy and, outside of drones and communications networks, tech-lite. Unlike the largescale industrial mobilizations required for past wars, they require, more than anything else, manpower and money. Quite a bit of the actual productive work (the building of infrastructure, for instance) takes place in the actual theater of operations, not on the homefront. Add to that the fact that COIN removes a disproportionate amount of young men and women from the productive workforce (some of them permanently), and returns a disproportionate amount of them disabled (due to improvements in force protection), and it becomes clear that COIN amounts to an enormous outflow of American wealth, with little in the way of productive stimulus to counterbalance it.

Joseph Steiglitz has already talked about the $3 trillion war. But I'd like to see some economists weigh in on this.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Iraq   

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Thursday, October 2, 2008

Balance and Modesty

Matthew E. Valkovic and Brian M. Burton pen a Small Wars Journal op-ed that pushes back a bit against Andrew Bacevich's recent Atlantic piece on the Army's internal "COIN vs. Conventional" doctrinal debates. You have to gather some momentum in order to influence an institution as massive and resistant to change as the U.S. Army, especially in the immediate aftermath of the violently imposed transformation of the Rumsfeld era. Add the immediacy, very eloquently expressed by Abu Muqawama, of watching your fellow soldiers die and I think the conviction of the COIN "crusaders," as Bacevich characterizes them, becomes very understandable.

Now that the COIN approach has won its bona fides in Iraq, a consensus -- and it strikes me as a reasonable one -- is emerging, expressed by Bob Gates in the speech I flagged yesterday, and echoed by Valkovic and Burton. According to that consensus, we need COIN because that's what we're doing at the moment, and it's very likely we'll be called on to do it in the future. That doesn't mean we'll abandon our conventional capacity, which is why Gates, Valkovic and Burton, emphasize balance. But it makes no sense to lose the war you're fighting in order to win one you might fight in the future.

But perhaps more importantly, nor does it mean that we'll go actively looking for places to apply our new COIN capacity, which is why Gates emphasized modesty, and Valkovic and Burton concur with Bacevich's notion of "strategic choice." I didn't flag the Gates passage on modesty, but Tom Barnett did, and it's worth a read (as is Barnett's inimitable commentary that follows). I also interpret Gen. David Petraeus' recent comments about the limited applicability to Afghanistan of what's been learned in Iraq as an implicit endorsement of this notion of modesty.

I'm reassured by the "Gates Consensus" and hope it solidifies, because I take the risk of COIN-toxication (by which I mean the same kind of over-confident interventionism that led to the Bush-Rumsfeld Iraq fiasco, only directed towards stability and reconstruction operations) seriously. COIN-centered operations -- especially as formulated by Gen. Petraeus' field manual and incarnated by his multidisciplinary, interdepartmental approach -- are a tempting vision of the military instrument as something other than a warfighting tool. It's a vision that has a special appeal to the left, with its liberal/humanitarian interventionist impulse, and to the right, with its forward defense mentality.

Which makes the kind of modesty that Gates articulated all the more essential. Because COIN is still war, and war is still hell. And I say that confidently, as a civilian who's never witnessed it. That's not to say that war isn't sometimes necessary. But when it isn't, it should be avoided.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

COIN and the Limits of Nation-Building

Janine Davidson at Intel Dump cites a Tom Johnson and M. Chris Mason piece in the Atlantic, All Counterinsurgency is Local, before discussing the tension between the tactics of counterinsurgency, which emphasize engaging with governance and authority at the most immediate (ie. local) level, and the strategy of counterinsurgency, which emphasizes shoring up governance and authority at the national level:

[T]he question we need to examine is about tradeoffs. What are we sacrificing from a national or international security perspective when we focus on human security at the local level, as Johnson and Mason suggest? What might an international system with weaker nation-states look like?

Do we have to choose between strengthening the local over the national level systems? Is it possible to have both? And can we help build both simultaneously, or should we focus on the local level and then eventually aggregate efforts up to a national level?

It's a point I alluded to here, in discussing the ways in which targeting the faultlines of the Westphalian order is increasingly becoming a feature not only of asymmetric non-state actors, but of great power geopolitics as well. It's also a point that I was planning to develop today, even before reading Davidson's post. Preventing failed and failing states from becoming vectors of regional and global security threats -- whether through terrorism, organized crime (human slavery, money laundering), or drug trafficking -- has become the foundational logic of America's national security posture, as reflected in the U.S. military's doctrinal shift towards a counterinsurgency emphasis.

But the tactical-strategic paradox that Davidson flags, between COIN on the one hand and nation-building on the other, reflects a broader historical context that risks getting clouded by the need for practical solutions to the operational challenges of two wars. Because in ways that vary from Iraq to Afghanistan to the Pakistani tribal areas, America is running up against the fundamental and historically unresolved tensions between the modern Westphalian system and the traditional ethno-sectarian/tribal system. Our strategic posture amounts to a colonial crusade in defense of the Westphalian order, even as the tactical necessities demanded by that crusade identify the historical limits of that order's applicability.

We're essentially fighting a rearguard battle of the 19th century colonial wars, minus the colonies. The fact that we're engaged in this exercise at the very moment that our global dominance seems to have peaked and our financial foundation is more uncertain than at any time in several generations suggests that in ignoring history, we're condemning ourselves to repeat it.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   International Relations   Iraq   

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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

After the Surge

It's admittedly been a while since I wrote about Iraq, which is a testament to the ways in which that conflict has become a mature stabilization operation. Twenty-three U.S. soldiers dead in August is twenty-three too many. But the security gains since January 2007 are enormous and game-changing.

I was opposed to the Surge when President Bush announced it, I've been skeptical of the weight it's been given as a causal factor of the decline in violence, and I remain unconvinced that it has accomplished its ultimate strategic goal of ensuring that Iraq's ethnic, sectarian and factional conflicts are resolved through the political process as opposed to armed violence. I also don't believe President Bush's decision to send the troops was particularly courageous from a political standpoint, since his only alternative was to admit to having committed the most catastrophic strategic blunder in American history.

That said, the Surge did accomplish two things. By signalling Bush's unwavering commitment to America's military engagement, it helped convince the various Iraqi factions that whether or not they ultimately resolve their differences through bloodshed, they'd stand to gain by waiting until after we're gone to do so. And should the security gains hold until the American drawdown is complete (whenever that is), the Surge will have allowed the American military to withdraw from Iraq with its coercive reputation intact. And that's indispensable if American power, in both its soft and hard expressions, is to be credible.

Now it's official, the shift of troops from Iraq to Afghanistan will begin in January 2009. That's, of course, where the rubber will hit the road in both theaters. I'm on record as being opposed to widening the conflict in Afghanistan, not because the objectives of the Afghan War aren't desirable. They are. I'm just not sure if they're achievable. As I pointed out above, I've been wrong before. Hopefully I'll be wrong here, too.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Iraq   

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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Coordinating Interagency Integration

If you haven't seen it on the WPR front page yet, give John Nagl's and Brian Burton's piece on the need for building civilian institutional capacity for counterinsurgency and nation-building operations a look. Obviously conflict zones are going to command a great deal of American attention and resources, and as Nagl and Burton make clear, unless civilian agencies adapt their training and institutional orientation, they will increasingly see their expertise farmed out to, or absorbed by, the military. As the article also makes clear, that won't happen until these agencies are funded and staffed to a level appropriate with their essential contributions to these efforts.

The piece emphasizes the need for more interagency "integration" of operations, but one question it leaves unanswered is who ultimately will play the overall coordinating role:

. . .The demands of large-scale counterinsurgency and reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq are increasingly clear: The United States must integrate civilian reconstruction expertise with military force in conflict zones. Ad hoc measures, like the establishment of the civil-military Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan and Iraq, were an important step towards creating this capability but are an incomplete solution. Recent State Department-led initiatives, which include the establishment of the Civilian Response Corps as well as the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (CRS) and the Interagency Counterinsurgency Initiative, represent an effort to establish effective civilian control of the political, economic, and social dimensions of nation-building operations.

One of the problems identified with PRT's is that, lacking any uniform command structure, they are essentially coordinated by the agency controlling the funding stream. More often than not these days, that's the Pentagon. As Nagl and Burton put it, the State Dept. initiative is only a first step. An overarching conceptual framework of how interagency integration functions might be a useful second one.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Foreign Policy   Iraq   

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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Case for Iraq Withdrawal Timetables

According to this CFR backgrounder, neighboring Arab states are increasing their aid to and engagement with Iraq as a pre-emptive security investment in the event of an increasingly expected American troop withdrawal. Of course, forcing Iraq's neighbors to assume more of a burden in stabilizing the country was one of the logical underpinnings of a withdrawal timeline, along with the pressure it would place on the Iraqi political process to make progress on power sharing arrangements. So, basically, two for two.

Meanwhile, why does nobody ever mention the November 2006 midterm elections, which conclusively demonstrated that American public opinion had turned against the war, as a contributing factor to the reduction in violence in Iraq? If you take a look at this graphic from the Economist (via The Global Buzz), the peak in Iraqi civilian casualties actually corresponds to the end of 2006, before the announcement and deployment of the Surge. (I imagine the spike in American military casualties in Summer 2007 is due to the increased deployment and forward engagement of American forces in Baghdad.)

Contrary to the worst case scenarios conjured up of bloody internecine fighting, the possibility that American forces might soon be leaving Iraq seems to have a way of focusing people's attention on pulling back from the brink and finding ways to make sure things don't fall completely apart. In other words, pretty much what advocates of disengagement suggested, across the board.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Political Logic of Timetables

Kevin Drum's got a smart post on the likelihood of President Bush and Iraqi PM Nouri Maliki reaching a deal on a status of forces agreement that was recently believed to be dead in the water. Here's the key quote from the WSJ article Kevin flags:

Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq's national-security adviser, said the recent agreement between Washington and Baghdad on a withdrawal time horizon is pushing the talks along.

"That mutual understanding has been very beneficial," he said. "Neither of us can deal with open-ended uncertainty."

The Iraqis are still pushing for a 2010 date, in line with Barack Obama's proposal, but the article suggests that a compromise date a year or two after that might salvage an agreement during the Bush administration's term. But what's interesting is that the logic used by al-Rubaie in support of a withdrawal timetable, which the Iraqis were already insisting on as early as June 2006, is the same logic used by American supporters of conditional disengagement, namely that the open-ended presence of American troops in Iraq was exacerbating factional divisions and undermining Iraqi political reconciliation.

What's happened in the meantime is that al-Sadr and the Sunnis silenced their guns, we surged five brigades into Baghdad, and Nouri Maliki flexed his muscles in Basra. Whether or not al-Sadr is beaten or just biding his time is a question we can't really answer, and the same is true of whether the Sunni insurgency will re-integrate the Iraqi political system peacefully or not.

It's also impossible to know for sure whether the American troop presence will simply postpone a return to violence, or create the conditions for a permanent political resolution of the sectarian and factional conflicts. But it's hard to think of a better way to test that proposition than by setting an actual timetable for withdrawal. In any case, an open-ended American military presence is politically untenable in Iraq, and it looks like the American political consensus is catching up to Baghdad's.

One final thought on the idea of a conditions-based timetable, where the big question no one is addressing is, Who sets the conditions? Spikes in violence might be caused by extremists bent on undermining the central government. But they might also represent resistance to a factional power grab legitimized by the mantle of American recognition. Anyone who thinks that a vague security guarantee to the Iraqi government is a good idea should take a look at France's experience in Africa, where due to outdated security agreements, French troops have been propping up regimes of varying degrees of unseemliness for decades.

Of course, to a certain degree that's what we did with Saddam Hussein so long as he functioned to contain Iran. But we did it with his army, not ours.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Monday, June 23, 2008

Quantum War, Quantum Warfare

Dr. iRack over at Abu Muqawama has emerged recently as an authoritative analyst of the Iraq War (and everything that term implies), so I recommend this rundown of the current situation that he posted over the weekend. Without getting too much into the details of his post (which is pretty comprehensive), it's reassuring to see that I'm not the only one who finds it difficult to make any meaningful sense out of the various narratives and counter-narratives that are now coming out of Iraq. Glass half-full or glass half-empty depends to a great deal on the observer.

But I'd venture to say that in many ways, some of them doctrinal and some of them practical, it no longer matters. We've entered a phase, both in the Iraq War and in the theory of warfare in general, that I'd characterize as quantum, where every tactical action has a multiplicity of possible significances and outcomes. And it's only the final strategic outcome that will eventually determine which particular meaning, in retrospect, was the correct one. In this case, the final outcome of a stable, pro-Western Iraq will signal strategic success, and anything else failure. That in turn will allow us to determine which events along the way were decisive and which anecdotal. But progress can no longer be measured with certainty along the way.

The implications for policy are obvious. Interventions must be very carefully weighed from the outset and the desired outcome very clearly identified, because once engaged, they become not only military quagmires, but political ones as well. Victory or defeat will always be just beyond the next car-bombing or IED attack, depending on one's point of view, and the arguments for pressing onward or withdrawing subject to second-guessing. Those conditions were obviously not met with regards to this war. But if we fail to recognize the nature of the changes taking place in warfare itself, it's unlikely that they'll be met with regards to the next one either.

Update: Very good schematic of the Iraqi political landscape by a guest poster over at the other Abu (Aardvark). Again, little in the way of answers, but the questions are noteworthy.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

To the Fallen, and the Standing

I would have liked to post this on Monday, but I was in NY with my son on a surprise visit for my Dad's 80th, and between jet lag and family time, I didn't get a chance to. That morning, me and the Lil' Feller had about an hour to kill before meeting up with everyone, since we were both waking up on Paris time. All weekend, there'd been a steady stream of Navy personnel in town for Fleet Week, and it occurred to me there might be some fun events programmed for a seven year-old. Sure enough, the USS Kearsarge was docked at Pier 90, a straight shot down to the water from the hotel, and it was open to the public. So we hopped in a Yellow cab and within ten minutes we were wandering around the various military vehicles -- a tank, an Armored Personnel Carrier, an amphibious landing craft -- stored in the hold.

I asked one of the Marine hosts, not even half my age, how many people rode in the back of the APC, which looked like an oversized oven fitted down the middle with two back-to-back benches about the width of a car seat. "Eight," he replied, before pointing out that by eight, he meant fully armed and equipped. "You don't want to be in there for more than five minutes," he assured me. Toss in the fact that as often as not an APC is transporting its passengers in a war zone, and I think it's safe to say that you don't want to be in there, period.

I was moved by the sight of all the young men and women in uniform in a way that I've never been before. I come from a family with a long history of pacifism and, yes, anti-militarism. Among the earliest photos of me in the family album is one, circa 1969, sitting in my stroller with a wool pennant reading "Bring the GI's home" draped across the front. In our family culture, though, hostility to the military was limited to the generals who sent young men into needless wars. The young men themselves were always regarded with a mixture of respect and regret.

This was the first time I'd ever really been surrounded by American soldiers during wartime. That it was also the first time I was face to face with the American military since my increased professional interest in national security and military issues probably also played a part in my heightened sense of appreciation. Clearly I was the target of a very effective info ops campaign, but I wanted to find some way of expressing to them my respect, my admiration, my emotion, not for their mission, which I find regrettable, but for their service, which I find heroic. The fact that it was Memorial Day, in the middle of a lightning visit back to my hometown, only reinforced the urgency of the sentiment. But as much as I wanted to say something, it would have felt silly to say it to only one of them, and impossible to say it to them all. I thought about trying to find an officer to use as a collective conduit, but the idea struck me as grandiose.

But more significantly, I felt curiously ashamed of expressing my appreciation, because to recognize the enormity of their service is also to recognize the normality of my own life. Unlike World War Two, where every segment of the population was mobilized into the war effort, or the Vietnam War, where the draft served to distribute the nightmare, if not equally, at least more widely, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have remained largely private wars: On the one hand, a mobilized military bearing an enormous burden; on the other, a demobilized citizenry bearing little to none.

So instead I explained to my son how moved I was, because these young people were serving at a time of war. And when we got to the transport helicopter fitted with medical stretchers up on the flag deck, I made it clear to him that these courageous men and women fly out every day knowing that they might be flying back strapped into one of them. War, I explained to him, is not a game. I hope to God he understood.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Iraq   

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Sons of Iraq

If you haven't already, give David Ucko's piece on the Sons of Iraq a read. I'm probably guilty of dismissing that particular aspect of the improved security situation too quickly. As Ucko makes clear, it's risky and far from conclusively resolved. But it can't be reduced to an effort to buy off guns to get them pointed in another direction, and doing so only ignores the significant opportunities it offers for real progress.

The catch, as always when it comes to progress in Iraq, is consolidating it into something that resembles a cohesive national government. Ucko puts his hopes in the upcoming provincial elections in October, followed by national elections in December 2009. In a way that makes sense. The Sunnis by and large boycotted the last elections, so this will really be their first go at the new Iraqi political process. But a lot still depends on the Shiites' willingness to accomodate them. And the proof of the pudding will have to wait for the first time political power in Iraq changes hands from one faction to another, to find out whether that transfer ends up being a peaceful one or not.

I remain largely skeptical about the longterm durability of the progress in Iraq, and pessimistic about the chances that all of the broken bones will set in time for Iraq to be able to bear its own weight anytime soon. But now would seem to be the wrong time to precipitously remove the plaster cast (namely, American troops) that's holding it in place. I fear that we're chaperoning a failed policy towards its ultimate demise. But I'm willing to admit to my own pessimism, and hope that it's ultimately proven wrong.

Update: Behind the gimmick of comparing the SoI to the Sopranos, this LA Times story suggests that internal power struggles are already surfacing among the Sunnis as the American-Sunni partnerships (and the advantages they bestow) solidify. This doesn't at all contradict the significance of the strategy that Ucko identifies, but it points out yet another potential faultline that must be navigated.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Big Picture on the Long War

Amidst the signs of progress in Iraq, two cautionary notes: despite the Maliki government's solidification of its hold on power by military means, very few of the major political challenges to national reconciliation have been addressed, let alone solved; and the security gains of the past year have now exerted a "push me-pull you" pressure on Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons to return to their homes, which have either been appropriated or walled off behind sectarian lines. In other words, having returned the security situation to what resembles a frozen civil war (or a tenuous and sporadically violated ceasefire), we're now confronted with the difficult, costly and lengthy challenges of nation-building.

Which brings us to Andrew Bacevich's LA Times op-ed (via AM's Dr. iRack), which calls into question the broader context of the "Long War." In essence, Bacevich argues that in setting out to change the world, we've weakened ourselves from within. Now, if we don't rein in our own profligacy and hubris, we'll no longer have the luxury to engage in nation-building abroad. It's a convincing argument, if only for the fact that we're better at national renewal than we are at international transformation. And it's one worth considering, given that somehow the Iraq War seems to have had little impact on the instinctive reflex in some circles to reach for American military power when faced with a thorny problem, whether it be Iran's nuclear program or humanitarian crises in Burma and Darfur. Add to that the fact that the U.S. Army is retooling in the image of a counterinsurgency force adapted to stabilization and reconstruction operations, and the implications of Bacevich's assessment become pretty dire.

In the aftermath of 9/11, America understandably confused a security threat with a national security threat; a threat to Americans was mistaken for a threat to America. But it also confused the calculus of the terrorist threat for a zero sum game. The impact of the Iraq War (which having been wrongly folded into the "Long War" narrative must now be included in its assessment) has demonstrated that America can both weaken al-Qaida and itself at the same time. That is, in the War on Terrorism, both we and the terrorists can lose.

That Iraq also demonstrates the limits of America's ability to mold societies in our own image is even more reason for a sober reassessment of the interventionist urge. The way things are shaping up around the world, there will be plenty of situations where we'll be tempted (perhaps even required) to apply the military lessons we've learned in Iraq in other countries, under other circumstances. But unless we integrate the political lessons we've learned in Iraq first, we're likely to meet with the same frustrating results.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Iraq   

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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Al-Sadr Flips a COIN

It's not often you get to read a full, English-language interview with Moqtada al-Sadr's official spokesman, which is why I'm linking to this one, even if it is a week old. Sure, it's with PressTV, the Iranian version of Fox News, but hey, the Bush administration has got Michael Gordon to push its talking points, so what the heck.

The two things that stand out to me from Sheikh Salah Obeidi's version of events (major caveat there) are the lengths to which the Sadrists have gone, and are going, to try to walk the intra-Shiite power struggle back from a shooting war. From calling a ceasefire at the outset of the Surge, to holding their fire in the face of Maliki provocations after the Basra truce, to meeting with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani last week, the Sadrists have made it clear that while they won't turn over their weapons (whether Iranian-furnished or not), they're willing to put them on ice.

The second was Obeidi's explanation for the Basra assault. The American press has primarily linked the attempt to crush the Sadrists to October's municipal elections.Obeidi does, too, but also mentions the fact that among Iraqi political parties, the Sadrists are the most likely to oppose the status of forces agreement currently being negotiated by the Iraqi government with the Bush administration. Which adds more urgency to getting them out of the way now.

The recent emphasis on crushing the Sadrists seems odd, though, given the Army's new COIN tactics. Al-Sadr is one of the few figures in Iraq who lead not just a constituency or a militia, but a movement. It might not be a movement that serves our interests, but according to Gen. Petraeus' very own COIN manual, that's not something that you crush, especially when, as Spencer Ackerman points out, al-Sadr is filling more governmental roles for his followers than the Iraqi government is able to. Saddam Hussein, using far more brutal methods, never managed to, and that was before the Sadrists had a militia to defend themselves. So I don't see how the Iraqi Security Forces are going to, even with our help.

What's more, we're going after the one Iraqi Shiite whose legitimacy doesn't depend on our, or the Iranians', support. The logic of counterinsurgency, though, assumes that the counterinsurgents are defending a legitimate government in the face of an illegitimate armed challenge. Otherwise what you have is puppet theater. And as all failed counterinsurgents eventually find out, puppets don't hold up very well in a warzone.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Business Never Personal

A few weeks back, I wrote that the real danger of Gen. Petraeus being promoted to CENTCOM is not so much that his regional strategy might be weighted towards Iraq to the detriment of Afghanistan, although that's certainly a risk. The real problem is that Gen. Petraeus' view of the Iranians is colored by the fact that he's been engaged in a low-level proxy war with them for the past year and a half.

But as this Dr. iRack post over at Abu Muqawama demonstrates, Petraeus isn't alone. Here's the good doctor discussing one possible reason why American policy-makers dismissed Iranian overtures for broad, regional negotiations following the recent fighting in Basra:

In recent weeks, Dr. iRack has been at a number of events with very senior U.S. officials discussing Iran's lethal involvement in Iraq. To a man, these officials have, over the past month, been rocketed by weapons made in Iran (although direct links to the regime remain murky). Dr. iRack is no psychologist, but key U.S. figures on the ground in Baghdad just don't seem to be in the mood to talk to folks with American blood an their hands while they're being shelled.

This, of course, is why it's not a good idea to put people who have been deeply engaged in-theater in broader regional policy positions. Again, the point is not that the Iranians are angels, or that their overture was necessarily credible. The point is that sometimes negotiating with the bad guys gets you a better result than fighting them, and personal animosities have a way of interfering with the judgment necessarily to make that sort of call.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Moqtada Paradox

For the past month, the Bush administration has been furiously rolling out the Iran-Sadr connection. Now Moqtada al-Sadr has begun to push back with the Iran-America connection:

Al Sadr Bloc spokesman in Najaf City Sheikh Salah Al Ubaidi accused Iran of working with the United Sates to share powers in Iraq.

That strikes me as a pretty smart play on al-Sadr's part, since it's looking more and more like he's the odd man out in Baghdad, Washington and Tehran. It also strikes me as the most accurate reading of what's going on, since at this point that's the only scenario that could possibly result in a stable Iraq.

Al-Sadr always seems to be most dangerous (or perhaps most agile) when everyone's busy counting him out, and something tells me this time's no different. Because if he's the odd man out, he's got no choice but to fight or strike a deal. And the idea that he's going to somehow settle for a deal with Maliki and SCII seems farfetched, since he already tried that and it didn't pan out so well for him.

The irony is that al-Sadr's vision for Iraq is by far the most compatible with our own, and in some alternate reality where we were watching this conflict from the sidelines or where we were not so heavily invested in taking him out, we would almost certainly be taking his side right now. In fact the only thing that kept us from doing so in the first place was our pipedream of a secular Iraqi democracy, and his mildly irritating habit of calling on his followers to drive out the infidel occupier, by which, curiously enough, he meant us.

We've obviously gotten over the Jeffersonian democracy kick, and in the case of the Sunnis we've managed to make nice with guys who initially weren't too keen on us sticking around. So I wouldn't be surprised if we didn't end up recognizing some of Moqtada's more lovable qualities before this whole thing is over. The question, though, is whether he'll learn to love us back.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The PRT's Over

By all accounts, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan and Iraq are pretty popular. Everyone -- be it military and civil service team members on the ground, Washington policy-makers on the Hill and in the Executive branch, or the media -- just loves them. In a conference call with PRT members a few months back, President Bush even went so far as to suggest that he envied them for what he, like many, perceived as the exotic adventure they're experiencing in the farflung corners of Iraq and Afghanistan.

And for good reason. After years of disheartening news in both theaters of operations, the PRT's seemed to capture the public's imagination with their combination of American ingenuity, resolve and industriousness, but also with their frontier-style independence. To be sure, they operate in dangerous theaters at great personal risk. But they're also such a novelty that, for the most part, they function as a sort of free electron in the military hierarchy's periodic chart. Often financed by discretionary Commander's Emergency Response Program (CERP) funds as improvised responses to conditions on the ground, the PRT's resemble a post-9/11 expression of the pre-Vietnam Peace Corps ethic, with a touch of 90's NGO euphoria thrown in for good measure: rogue units taking advantage of the chaos of a war to wage peace.

But all that's likely to change soon, since the freewheeling nature of the PRT's that makes them such a popular feelgood story also makes them a nightmare to government oversight committees. The House Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight, in particular, just published its first report on the PRT's, and not surprisingly focused on the need for clearly defined missions, doctrine, operating procedures, goals, and metrics to measure their success. In other words, all the institutionalized standardization that will almost certainly make PRT's more "effective" while sucking all of the life out of them.

The PRT's are a significant and innovative part of the Army's new approach to counterinsurgency, which with its emphasis on a "human-culture-society" approach to COIN resembles an art as much as a military doctrine. With the promotion of Gen. Petraeus to CENTCOM commander and the apparent ascendancy of the Army's COIN faction, that approach has now assumed the position of the "dominant narrative" within the culture of the Army. Which means that in its own way, it too will be increasingly institutionalized and formatted as it moves further from its origins as an improvised response to conditions on the ground and closer to a law of science, frozen in a textbook and captured in the vacuum of certainty.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Iraq   

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Friday, April 25, 2008

Playing the Petraeus Card

It looks like I'm the only one who's underwhelmed by the Petraeus appointment to CENTCOM commander, but what the heck. In for a penny, in for pound. So here's another thorny question that I've yet to see directly addressed. (Hampton, make sure you've had your morning cup of Joe before reading any further.)

I mentioned that by using his direct lines of communication with the Oval Office to leapfrog Adm. Fallon, Petraeus had already been serving as de facto CENTCOM commander. But in thinking about it, the leapfrog actually went much further than that, because President Bush made it clear that he would follow Petraeus' lead in Iraq, and not the other way around. 

Now, if you're a cynic like me, you might think that was a political ploy to use the persuasive authority of the Iraq theater commander to implement military tactics in Baghdad that serve Bush's political purposes in Washington. (All the better if they've been responsible for the improved security situation, but the causal connection remains disputable, and subject to developments on the ground.) But if you're not, it means that Petraeus was exercising a command that far exceeded the bailiwick of MNF-I or CENTCOM, for that matter. Petraeus was calling the shots for the Commander-in-Chief, and not the other way around.

Of course, so long as Petraeus' strategic vision is consistent with President Bush's political agenda, there's little reason to believe the relationship will suffer from his assumption of CENTCOM duties. But what happens when Petreaus decides that Bush's political line jeopardizes our regional strategic position? Well, it turns out we have a recent example of what happens to a CENTCOM commander who isn't in lockstep with the Bush administration's Middle East policy. It's called early retirement.

Now call me cynical, call me cranky, call me contrarian (just, please, don't call me punctilious). But to my eyes this looks like the latest installment of the Bush administration's politicization of the officer corps, and I suspect that anyone who expects Petraeus to suddenly start thinking differently about the big regional picture than he did about the Iraq theater is in for a disappointment. Petraeus will ask Bush for what Bush wants to give him, and Bush will then give it to him under the pretense that it's what his military commander asked for. And if Petraeus upsets the apple cart between now and January 20, 2009, he'll be joining Fox Fallon on the motivational speaking tour.

The problem isn't that the President calls the shots in time of war. That's how it should be. The problem is that the Petraeus-Bush relationship is a closed feedback loop, hermetically impervious to disproof and driven by a political agenda whose ideological foundation Bush has pragmatically sidelined but never explicitly renounced. And it's about to go regional.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   The Middle East   

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Petraeus Principle

What's clear so far about the Petraeus CENTCOM announcement is that all anyone can do right now is speculate on what impact this will all have. But while answers will only come with time, the fundamental questions are shaping up pretty quickly. According to Abu Muqawama they boil down to how Gen. Petraeus' experiences in Iraq are going to influence his regional vision in general, his approach to Iran in particular, and his ability to make detached decisions about how to distribute scarce resources between the two theaters of war now under his command. Tom Barnett, on the other hand, flips the formulation a bit and wonders how the added regional perspective will impact Gen. Petraeus' approach to Iraq and Iran, although he worries about the fact that the DoD is now pretty much all "bad cop," up and down the line, when it comes to Iran.

One thing that's implied in AM's remarks about Petraeus' regional vision being shaped by the prism of Iraq, but that I'd draw out even more explicitly, is that his vision of the Iranians has been shaped by the prism of what amounts to a proxy war there. So whatever broader regional approach to Tehran he adopts can't help but be conditioned by the fact that he has already been engaged in low-intensity warfare with them for the past year and a half. To use the language of Petraeus' own COIN manual, his Iran narrative has begun as a war story. So either he's capable of making a very significant pivot, or else the plotline is about to be expanded to a regional level (which, as Tom Barnett points out, does not necessarily mean a decisive attack on Iran but logically suggests one).

Meanwhile, some questions are being raised (Phil Carter here and Charlie from AM here) about Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno's fit as commander of MNF-I. But I'm surprised that, so far, no one's had the temerity to point out that compared to his CENTCOM predecessors, Gen. Petraeus' credentials are underwhelming for such a strategically vital regional command. Admiral Fallon's prior regional command experience was too deep to count. Gen. Abizaid did prior staff tours in the Office of the Army Chief of Staff, the Southern European Task Force, and the U.S. Army Europe HQ. Gen. Franks commanded the 3rd Army for three years prior to taking over CENTCOM, and Gen. Zinni was CENTCOM Deputy C-i-C for nine months before assuming the top spot.

The bulk of Petraeus' experience, meanwhile, has been in operations and training (which is what you'd expect for someone who has demonstrated such tactical brilliance). Challenging as it is, Commander MNF-I is his broadest command to date. Now it could be that Petraeus is, in addition to being a tactical genius, a strategic genius as well. But a case could be made for the argument that, in leapfrogging Adm. Fallon through his personal relationship with President Bush, Petraeus has essentially served as de facto Commander of CENTCOM for the past year and a half. And in that time he has put the Iraq theater ahead of our broader regional interests, and according to many, ahead of the health of the Army.

Again, only time will tell. But so far, the only real qualification Petraeus seems to have for the job is to have offered President Bush a fortuitous tactical approach that coincided perfectly with Bush's political needs.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

The War That Never Was

The NY Times story detailing how the Pentagon used "military analysts" to spread administration talking points on the Iraq War is sure to dominate the news cycle, and rightly so. The story reveals the fundamental role Information Operations (IO) play in the Pentagon's strategic vision, as I noted here, and as confirmed by this October 2003 report (.pdf) titled Information Operations Roadmap, personally approved by Donald Rumsfeld and kept secret until January 2006, when the National Security Archive at George Washington University obtained it through a FOIA request. While far from a smoking gun, the report makes for interesting reading, especially the passages that recognize the difficulty of maintaining boundaries between foreign and domestic audiences in the contemporary media landscape.

A lot of discussion of the story's revelations is almost certain to center around the Smith-Mundt Act, but significantly, nothing that took place violated its prohibitions, which are on the domestic dissemination of public diplomacy "propaganda" targeting foreign media markets. The same talking points echoed by the "analysts" were being distributed for domestic consumption by official DoD and White House spokespeople. The fact that the "analysts," who were under no direct orders, were not identified as official Pentagon mouthpieces is a matter of personal integrity (or lack thereof) and their network employers' lack of rigor in vetting them.

That's not to say that the operation isn't alarming and repugnant, both from the point of view of the Pentagon and the "analysts." It is. But it's also not very surprising, and falls short, in its flagrant contempt of press objectivity, of this administration's other abuses, mentioned in passing in the article. The major systemic failure, to my mind, was not in the "analysts," who were led astray by human nature and misplaced institutional loyalty, or in the Pentagon, which was faithful to its institutional nature, but in the media which, by failing to vet the "analysts" for independence of viewpoint, betrayed one of its central functions.

To the extent that the operation was successful, it illustrates the Pentagon's savvy appreciation of contemporary media. The "analysts" were "paid by the hit" by the networks, which meant that, like Debka and Drudge, their privileged media positions were dependent on access to their sources more than veracity of their information. The identification of "analysts," as opposed to reporters, as key opinion shapers also demonstrates an understanding that in an age of media saturation, those who frame narratives are more important than those who gather facts.

But insomuch as the information they were peddling was demonstrably false, the operation reveals the extent to which the DoD has failed to integrate the lessons of Vietnam, which it has identified as the media filter slanting public opinion, as opposed to the dissonance between the Department's official line and the reality on the ground. It also leaves the Pentagon wide open to what amounts to a devastating counter-op targeting the very assets (the "analysts" themselves) it would normally deploy to defend itself. As such, the Times story should probably be understood as part of an internal DoD battle for control of the Iraq War "narrative," and the cameo appearances by Gen. Petraeus, in this context, are hardly surprising.

The demonstrable falsehood of the talking points will also ultimately determine whether the DoD crossed whatever statutory lines might apply, since it is forbidden from domestic use of Psychological Operations (Psy Ops) both by executive order and department regulation. For an in-depth treatment of some of the ways IO and Psy Ops have already been employed during the Iraq War, as well as how the lines between foreign and domestic consumption have been blurred and/or exploited, Daniel Schulman's Columbia Journalism Review piece from back in March 2006 is must reading.

Ultimately, the story really drives home the degree to which the Iraq War has existed mainly as a battle between competing narratives, whose defining feature is the fading centrality of fact, and whose defining historical figure may end up being neither George W. Bush nor Saddam Hussein, but Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf, the Iraqi Minister of Information who declared America's military defeat even as U.S. forces occupied Baghdad. Launched in response to an imaginary threat, planned to facilitate an imaginary liberation, waged to secure an imaginary peace, and now extended to achieve imaginary outcomes, the administration's version of the Iraq War has from start to finish replaced reality with denial, analysis with wishful thinking, and factual assessments with fairy tales. Indeed, were it not for the deaths of 4,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis that make such an idea obscene, you could almost say that the Iraq War has never really existed at all.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Media Coverage   

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Failure of the Al-Qaida Model

Funny how for months we've been picking apart the Anbar Awakening from a tactical point of view, all the while failing to take into account its single most significant strategic implication. Namely, that al-Qaida's blueprint for Islamic revolution does not work.

The Military Review article I wrote up in an earlier post offered more evidence of what's become the consensus explanation for the turning of the Sunni tribes: their disgust with al-Qaida Iraq's murderous tactics and their resentment at the AQI "foreigners" trying to impose an internationalist jihadi ideology on what was essentially a nationalist insurgency. But al-Qaida, as a globalized, multi-national suicide bombing outfit, has no other operational doctrine and no native land to call its own. Which means its experience in Iraq is almost certain to be reproduced everywhere it goes.

Think about that for a second. At a time when eighty percent of the Arab world views America unfavorably, and in a war that a majority of Americans (let alone Iraqis) disapprove of, al-Qaida failed to establish a sustainable bridgehead. That's not the mark of an organization that represents a strategic, existential threat to the United States.

By their nature, Al-Qaida in particular and terrorism in general pose very real threats to the lives and safety of American civilians, threats that need to be addressed firmly, resolutely and effectively. But anyone claiming they are anything more than that has not been paying close enough attention to the evidence of the Iraq War, of which they are usually the most vocal supporters.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Iraq   

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

COIN and Combat Tours

When President Bush announced that Iraq and Afghanistan combat tours would be cut back to twelve months from their current fifteen, Phil Carter and Kevin Drum had an interesting back and forth and back about tour lengths and counterinsurgency best practices. The upshot of the exchange was that even though counterinsurgency demands familiarity with the area of operations, there's a point of diminishing returns beyond which the human toll of longer tours interferes with units' ability to be effective. Here's Carter:

[T]here's a finite limit to the amount of combat that men and women can endure. So we must balance combat effectiveness, and the needs of an all-volunteer force (and its families), against the steep learning curve of counterinsurgency, which demands longer deployments.

Today the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Dan K. McNeill, weighed in from "his heavily fortified headquarters" in Kabul. McNeill argued that the fifteen month tours ". . .are critical to making progress in the war against Afghanistan's Taliban and other insurgents. . ." and that ". . .the greatest gains in the war have come from Soldiers serving the long tours." He did, however, recognize that they are not feasible:

"It's not something I advocate we stay on forever," McNeill said. "We've got to ease up on the force a little bit. It's especially an issue for the families."

But he said the most successful units have been U.S. Army troops who have "established relationships with the terrain, with the indigenous people and with the enemy, and have had a good amount of time to exploit those relationships and use them to their advantage."

This does seem to be a wrinkle that needs to be ironed out. Basing a significant operational component of Army doctrine on a tactical approach that is based on a fundamentally irreconciliable dilemma presents obvious problems. Carter suggested using the Marine Corps model of seven-month tours combined with rotating units back into previous areas of operation, thereby providing needed rest along with continuity. Hopefully this will be addressed whenever Gen. Petraeus' highly praised COIN manual comes up for a revision.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Iran's Iraq Policy Mirrors Our Own

Yesterday's post about recent U.S. and Iranian restraint opening the door to possible engagement might have been premature to the extent that it downplayed the rhetoric now coming out of Washington about Iran's involvement with Iraqi militias. In particular, the events in Basra are now being used to demonstrate the amount of material and training Iran has supplied to the Sadrist militia, both "special" (ie. rogue) factions and those loyal to Moqtada. Future conflicts will certainly bring to light the operational links that Iran has established with other Shiite militias as well, including those that are integrated into Iraq's national security apparatus.

The Bush administration is portraying this influence as "malign", and insomuch as it works in opposition to our stated goals (solidifying Iraqi sovereignty) and our unstated goals (liquidating the most prominent Iraqi figure -- al-Sadr -- that isn't willing to reach a working arrangement with us), it is. But it's important to remember how arbitrary (or subjective) our definition of terms really is: we've identified the incarnation of Iraqi sovereignty as those willing to cooperate with us, from which it necessarily follows that al-Sadr -- who might very well be the most nationalist of Shiites -- and the support Tehran provides him become part of the problem. Food for thought for the next phase of intra-Shiite power consolidation: if we defined anyone who received support from Tehran as an enemy, we'd have no Shiite allies left.

What's also significant is the degree to which our Sunni policy perfectly mirrors Iran's Shiite policy, both in practice (supplying non-state militias fighting against foreign forces) and effect (undermining the government's monopoly on the legitimate use of force). For the time being, Sunnis have identified al-Qaida Iraq as their principle foreign enemy. But with AQI's strength dwindling, it's only a matter of time before they turn their attention to another foreign power with a significant presence in Iraq.

When that time comes, the Sunnis will have a choice between the two foreign powers left in Iraq: the U.S. and Iran. In the first case, we'll find the second front re-opened, in the second we'll find ourselves on the field as the full-scale Iraqi civil war breaks out. In either case, the role of guarantor of Iraqi sovereignty seems almost certain to be even less attractive than it is now.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Friday, April 11, 2008

The Limits of the Surge: Interview with Gian Gentile

You might have heard of Gian P. Gentile. He's an active duty Army lieutenant colonel whose World Politics Review article, "Misreading the Surge," brought a fierce internal debate over the Surge and its potential impact on the Army's conventional capabilities to the attention of the general public. In addition to being discussed in numerous foreign policy and national security blogs and fora, the article was also referenced in a recent Wall Street Journal article about this week's congressional hearings on the Surge.

Gentile very graciously agreed to do a follow up email interview for World Politics Review, which is up now. If you've already followed this a bit, the interview provides some further elaboration of his main arguments and concerns. If you haven't, it's a pretty thorough introduction to a debate that's certain to be central to American military doctrine for the years to come.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Iran in Iraq

Since the Senate Foreign Relations committee seems to be giving Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker a pretty tough time regarding Iran's influence in Iraq and how reasonable it is to believe we can eliminate it, now might be a good time to point out that former Iraqi Prime Minister and head of PM Noori Miliki's Dawa Party, Ibrahim Jafari, was in Tehran on Sunday, where he met with Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani:

Jafari. . .highlighted the Islamic Republic of Iran’s role in solving his country’s problems and said, "Iran seeks to establish peace, security and stability in the region."

Maybe the timing's just a coincidence. Or maybe it has to do with ironing out the wrinkles in the Basra deal. Still, it's hard to believe that Jafari and Maliki don't understand the importance of the Petraeus Report. The appearances of this are radioactive, but I wonder if anyone in Washington noticed.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Update: After reading this from Kevin Drum, it looks like this meeting could be another sign that Iran is increasingly taking Maliki's side in his standoff with al-Sadr. As for how Moqtada's doing, as the title of Kevin's post wonders, I'd just point out that every time someone counts al-Sadr out, he manages to get back up from the canvas in better shape than before.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Consolidating the Surge's Gains

I'm not able to watch the hearings here in Paris, so I've only been able to read their prepared statements which are up now on the Senate Armed Services Committee website(Amb. Crocker here, Gen. Petraeus here). But based on that, I've got to agree with Andrew Sullivan: both Gen. Petraeus' and Ambassador Crocker's testimony seem to reflect an effort at intellectual honesty that surpasses that of most of the shrill din surrounding them.

There's still the possibility that a few days of high-pressure questioning might produce the kind of political theater that definitively shifts public opinion, but besides that, I'm not sure what these hearings can really accomplish. Again, I'm across the pond here in Paris, but from afar, it seems that between the two extremes of "Iraq forever" and "Get out now" lies the vast majority of Americans who are simply trying to make sense of a situation that seems increasingly difficult to extricate ourselves from by the day. Unlike forty years ago, when we were a nation divided, today we are a nation increasingly hemmed in.

There's nothing unreasonable about Gen. Petraeus' recommendations -- a 45-day freeze following the final Surge brigade drawdown to consolidate the "reversible gains" already made -- were it not for the fact that those gains seem too ephemeral to ever really consolidate. Which means six months from now, we're likely to find ourselves locked on the horns of this very same dilemma: if we stay, things are unlikely to get better, and if we go they're likely to get worse.

There's also nothing unreasonable about Ambassador Crocker's emphasis on establishing a longterm status of forces arrangement with the Iraqi government for when the current U.N. mandate expires in December. Crocker stipulated that the agreement would be non-binding on a future American president. And yet, the status quo has a measure of inertial weight that sometimes becomes hard to displace.

Crocker made reference to a diplomatic surge over the course of the past year, but frankly, it seems to have passed under the radar. If there's one thing missing from the mainstream debate that was present in most of the expert testimony presented to Congress, it's the need to widen the diplomatic fora for stabilizing Iraq. We need to bring in some fresh air, not to feed the fire, but to clear our thoughts. We've been locked into the illogic of our Iraq policy for so long now that we've lost sight of the fact that you can't solve a problem that you've become part of. That's the only way I can see to make the "recommendations" (if we were honest with ourselves, we'd call them what they are: policy decisions) Gen. Petraeus made today palatable.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Sunday, April 6, 2008

Iraq 2012

If you're interested in what a non-alarmist view of American withdrawal from Iraq might look like, click through and read Dr. F. Gregory Gause's testimony (.pdf) from last Thursday's Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing titled, "Iraq 2012: What Can It Look Like, How Do We Get There?" Gause, an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Vermont, offered his analysis as part of the committee's lineup of hearings meant to put next week's Petraeus/Crocker appearances into a broader strategic context.

While he acknowledged that withdrawal would result in Iraqi violence, both sectarian and factional, he argued that even if it results in all-out civil war (not necessarily inevitable) the chances of a worst-case scenario (regional destabilization, armed intervention of neighboring states and a resurgent al-Qaida) are not as great as proponents of an extended American military presence suggest.

Gause discounts the likelihood of armed intervention of neighboring states leading to a regional conflagration, for the simple reason that Iraq's neighbors either don't need to (Iran), don't want to (Turkey) or don't have the ability to (Saudi Arabia) invade the country in the event of an all-out civil war:

The Iranians already have what they want in Iraq -- substantial influence both with the Baghdad government and with major actors in border regions to the south and the north. The Turks do not want to occupy Iraqi Kurdistan or annex it. The Saudi army is hardly capable of serious cross-border operations. Foreigners will play in Iraqi politics as long as Iraq is weak and Iraqi parties seek foreign support. They are doing it now, with the American military there. They will continue to do it. But they do not appear to have the desire (in some cases, like Turkey and Iran) or the means (Saudi Arabia) to intervene in a direct, sustained military way that could lead to a wider regional war. (p. 7)

In other words, the American military presence creates moral hazard not only for Iraqi factions, but for outside powers (Iran, Saudi Arabia) as well, who can meddle in Iraq's domestic affairs knowing that U.S. forces are there to contain the fallout.

As for the possibility that American withdrawal would embolden al-Qaida, Gause's reasoning is pretty compeling:

Undoubtedly, al-Qaeda will claim victory with an American withdrawal. But making that fact, over which we have no control, the reason to maintain our presence in Iraq gives Usama bin Laden a veto over American policy. . . Bin Laden can claim what he wants; people in the region will see the results on the ground. (p. 7)

But if a worst-case scenario is far from a foregone conclusion, so too is an optimistic one, since any long-term stabilization of Iraq can only take place in the context of the Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry. According to Gause, the Saudis consider the Maliki government an Iranian client state (something to consider next time the question of air support for the ISF comes up), and are convinced that grouping the southern Shiite provinces into a regional government along the lines of the Kurdish KRG would be the first step towards the eventual dissolution of Iraq. Significantly, the creation of a southern "Shia-stan" -- supported by Maliki ally, ISCI -- is strongly opposed by the nationalist Sadrist faction (something else to consider next time the question of air support for the ISF comes up).

Gause also identifies an indirect consequence of the Anbar Awakening that I've yet to see mentioned elsewhere, namely that by re-directing the Sunni insurgency away from American forces, the Awakening has resulted in the creation of Sunni clients that the Saudis can support without jeopardizing Saudi-U.S. bi-lateral relations. The Sunni groups can't be considered Saudi proxies, since Riyadh doesn't exert any control over them. But by providing the Saudis with the political cover necessary for financing and supplying Iraq's Sunni tribes, the Awakening strategy has created one of the pre-conditions for the kind of Saudi-Iranian proxy war that figures prominently in so many doomsday scenarios of the impact of an American withdrawal.

Finally, Gause points out that we can't broker a resolution of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry so long as we are participants in it. Which is why he believes that a U.S.-Iranian bi-lateral engagement, if not a pre-requisite for a regional approach, will dramatically increase its chance of success.

Carole O'Leary's testimony is also worth a read for the way in which it illustrates how, by reducing the narrative of Iraq's internal faultlines to broad regional, ethnic and sectarian identities, we impoverish our ability to find creative solutions to the political problems of Iraqi reconstruction. As an example, in talking about a federalist solution, she observes that based on her research, ". . .Arab Iraqis who are open to federalism are without doubt more likely to think in terms of at least five federal regions, not three." In particular, O'Leary believes we should take advantage of tribal identity, which in many cases straddles sectarian and ethnic divides, as a way to foster a federal model along the lines of the United Arab Emirates:

. . .[A]n Arab state which espoused federalism as a model for governance precisely because it offered a pathway toward holding the country together and distributing the oil resources fairly in a tribal context. The UAE is an example of a pluralistic society in which the pluralism stems from tribalism, not ethnicity. This of course is an important point for Arab Iraqis who reject what they see as a Kurdish insistence on ethnic federalism. (pp. 5-6).

The media narrative on Iraq is increasingly reduced to the Surge, with an emphasis on the tactical metrics (casualty figures and "political benchmarks") that were formulated to justify it. So hats off to Joe Biden for getting this kind of context into the Congressional record. It would be nice if the press paid some attention to it. But at least it's there for people who are interested.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Fighting in Basra

Magical thinking is no substitute for strategy.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Nabucco in Jeopardy, Again

Turkish President Abdullah Gul met with Turkmenistan President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov yesterday, and while both leaders expressed their ". . .mutual will for improving bilateral economic and commercial relations between the two countries," no agreement was announced on whether or not Turkmeni gas will feed the proposed Nabucco pipeline that would make Turkey a gas hub connecting Central Asia with Southern and Central Europe. For Today's Zaman (Turkey), that meant the two countries "agree to boost economic cooperation." For RIA Novosti, citing a Turkish-language paper, that meant "Nabucco trans-Caspian gas pipeline in jeopardy."

WPR contributing editor John Rosenthal recently wrote about the fact that the logic of the Nabucco pipeline, designed to reduce Europe's dependence on Russian gas, doesn't stand up without Iranian reserves feeding it. Which makes the U.S. State Dept's sudden support for the project surprising, and its criticism of other countries for signing energy deals with Iran somewhat hypocritical.

I suppose it could be argued that participation in Nabucco could function as a carrot to try to lure Iran into adopting a more responsible regional posture. But the thing about offering carrots is that they work best when you're not absilutely dependent on the other party to accept them.

I suppose it's also worth noting that Iraq's Oil Ministry has just announced a tender for a pipeline to Iran, designed to transport Iraqi crude to Iran and Iranian refined products back into Iraq. Something to think about the next time someone argues we invaded for the oil.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   Iran   Iraq   Turkey   

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Kristol Klear

I have to admit, I never really understood why so many liberal bloggers bother to go after William Kristol. It always seemed like wasted effort, since the people who are going to fall for his nonsense are not susceptible to liberal arguments in the first place. But in glancing through his new Weekly Standard column that explains why the Pentagon review that found no direct links between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda actually found direct links between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, I finally got it: Taking Kristol apart is actually fun.

Take this tortured passage about documents linking Saddam Hussein to the Egyptian Islamic Jihad:

...Apparently whoever wrote the executive summary didn't consider the link between Saddam and al Zawahiri a "direct connection" because Egyptian Islamic Jihad had not yet, in the early 1990s, fully been incorporated into al Qaeda. Of course, by that standard, evidence of support provided to Osama bin Laden in the early 1990s might not be deemed a "direct connection" because al Qaeda as we know it today did not yet exist.

Apparently it never occurred to Mr. Kristol that by the standard he's proposing as an alternative, evidence of support provided to Osama bin Laden in the 1980s (say by, I don't know... CIA proxies?) would be deemed a "direct connection" to al Qaeda as well.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Iraq   

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Surge as Pyrrhic Victory

On the heels of the release of the Pentagon's definitive study demonstrating that there was no pre-Iraq War link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida, comes this WPR feature from Bernard Finel arguing that recent progress in Iraq should not be confused with progress against the global terrorist threat:

We are slowly digging ourselves out of the hole of the Iraq war. Al-Qaida has increasingly been marginalized in Iraq, and the success of American counterinsurgency efforts has diminished the perception that we can be defeated quickly or easily. And yet, Iraq remains a net negative in the overall struggle. . . Al-Qaida is on the run in Iraq, but continues to use the war as a potent and effective recruiting tool throughout the Muslim world.

Worse, six and half years after Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida is stronger than ever. It has a safe haven in Pakistan. It has replaced revenue lost through better financial monitoring with increased ties to the drug trade. It has tightened its institutional links to jihadist organizations around the world, making deep inroads in Southeast Asia and North Africa, as well as maintaining its core of support in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Finel is the author of the American Security Project's report Are We Winning?, which last September measured progress in the fight against extremist violence based on a variety of metrics. The ASP just issued a six-month update to the report today, and the results are discouraging.

To be sure, the threat of Iraq becoming a vector for the spread of radicalized and trained al-Qaida operatives can't be dismissed. Matthew Levitt, for instance, points to the similarities between a recently de-classified State Dept. assessment from 1993 of the threat posed by radicalized Afghan mujahidin and today's Iraq to make that case. And that's probably the most compelling argument as far as American public opinion goes against a precipitous withdrawal from (or a continued presence in) Iraq. (Strategically, the collapse of Iraq is probably more of a threat to our regional interests.)

Still, I can't help but wonder whether, with al-Qaida Iraq's recent reversals of fortune, the most seasoned and hardcore operatives haven't already left the burning ship to sink and begun to fan out into the other theaters of operation that have already been identified. (Western Europe and the Maghreb, for instance.) In many ways, the idea that AQI ever harbored a serious ambition to somehow conquer and govern Iraq is farfetched. More than a territory to be conquered, Iraq represented a convenient host for the extremist virus to nourish itself and spread. In that sense, it has long since served its purpose, which means that AQI can now shed the "I" with little impact on its broader strategic goals.

Which in turn means that our "victory" over the AQI threat might end up being a pyrrhic one. Metrics such as body counts are tricky when it comes to an enemy that uses suicide as a tactic. And going by the ones the ASP has come up with, the broader war is far from over.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Iraq   

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Friday, March 7, 2008

Licensing The Monopoly On Violence

If you haven't yet read Nir Rosen's Rolling Stone article, The Myth of the Surge, definitely click through and give it a look. It provides anecdotal support, but support nonetheless, for all the caveats being attached to the recent progress in Iraq, especially as concerns the Sunni Awakening. But it also anecdotally supports the image that's beginning to emerge of a low-intensity, quasi-suspended civil war under way in Iraq, ie. the exact opposite of what the Surge was designed to accomplish.

It's already clear that the American military approach to the complexities of Iraq has been to assemble a network of sub-contracted militias, from Blackwater to the Shiite-infiltrated Iraqi National Police (INP) to the Sunni Awakening's Concerned Local Citizens councils. Naturally, the result has been a jockeying for position among the rival factions. Since all of them derive their power (at least to operate openly) from their proximity to American handlers, this boils down to competing for recognition of legitimacy from the American military. In this hub and spokes model, the state, with its monopoly on the use of violence, has been replaced by the American military, which proceeds to grant licenses on the use of force to the Iraqi spokes radiating outward.

To get a sense of how unstable this kind of arrangement is, and the degree to which it pushes problems down the line instead of solving them, replace Sunni with "Bloods", Shiites with "Crips", and Baghdad with Los Angeles. Then picture them manning armed checkpoints along every major traffic artery from Silverlake to Venice Beach, and feel the chills running down your spine.

To be sure, some aspects of the new counterinsurgency tactics seem likely to be effective. Back when I was working as a gang intervention counselor in Watsonville, CA, for instance, we would have loved to have this kind of mojo:

First Lt. Shawn Spainhour, a contracting officer with the unit, asks the sheik at the mosque what help he needs. The mosque's generator has been shot up by armed Shiites, and the sheik requests $3,000 to fix it. Spainhour takes notes. "I probably can do that," he says. The sheik also asks for a Neighborhood Advisory Council to be set up in his area "so it will see our problems." The NACs, as they're known, are being created and funded by the Americans to give power to Sunnis cut out of the political process.

But if this kind of investment is being made in East Baghdad instead of East LA, chalk it off as just another opportunity cost of the Iraq War. 

Meanwhile, floating above it all is the destructive effect of the American occupation:

. . .Raids by U.S. forces have become part of the daily routine in Iraq, a systematic form of violence imposed on an entire nation. A foreign military occupation is, by its very nature, a terrifying and brutal thing, and even the most innocuous American patrols inevitably involve terrorizing innocent Iraqi civilians. . . U.S. soldiers are the only law in Iraq, and you are at their whim. Raids like this one are scenes in a long-running drama, and by now everyone knows their part by heart. . .

The grimmest aspect of Rosen's account is the Shiite officer in the INP who finds himself caught between Mahdi Army threats for doing his job too well and American pressure for not doing it well enough. All the while, his loyalty -- like that of most of the professional officer cadre -- lies with neither Shiite, Sunni or America, but Iraq. By the end of the article, he confides to Rosen his intention to quit his job, as if to show that in a civil war, the real losers are the people who, because of their higher loyalty to the nation, don't pick sides.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Real Impact Of 9/11

A month is a long time in the era of online news and opinion, but I just stumbled on a Project on Defense Alternatives monograph from back in February that's really worth a mention. Carl Conetta makes a pretty convincing argument that the major significance of 9/11 was political, not strategic, and that the true historical pivot point of our time remains the fall of the Soviet Union.

Conetta begins with the paradox of American military primacy in the post-Cold War era. This nugget is enough to make any foreign policy writer green with envy:

With Soviet collapse, America won a windfall in a currency of power that - because of Soviet collapse - was simultaneously devalued.

He also makes the good point that while the 90's saw the birth of the liberal hawk movement, the embrace of American military intervention was far from universal, and often faded soon after the initial engagement with the enemy:

The disappearance of the Soviet threat also made it difficult to form a stable US domestic consensus on overseas military activism. During the 1990s, almost every contingency operation - Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Kosovo - quickly became a point of acute contention. Outside the context of the global East-West struggle, America's security stakes in many far-flung conflicts seemed attenuated. Neither the notion of "humanitarian interests" nor that of "important if not vital interests" were sufficient to quell dissent. . .

Conetta articulates a three-point plan for developing domestic political consensus for military activism abroad in the post-WWII era, one that bears a remarkable resemblance to the selling of the Iraq War:

  • First, the national security stakes in foreign involvements must be perceived as real, present, and substantial;
  • Second, the United States must retain freedom of action abroad. In alliance or other multinational endeavors, it must possess a distinct leadership role; and,
  • Third, the modes of action must be perceived as "decisive" - that is: perceived as likely to yield clear, positive results. . . In military operations, it implies the demand for clear, invariant objectives and for using overwhelming force to win them quickly.

This gets us to the crux of Conetta's argument, namely that 9/11 changed everything not in the world, but in American public opinion:

What made a more energetic and proactive interventionary policy broadly acceptable within the United States was the 9/11 attacks - together with the initial impression that the US armed forces would be used in ways best suited to their capabilities. What has proved far less acceptable - and, indeed, has been the Bush administration's undoing - is the desultory occupation duties that followed the initial, conventional victories in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Concetta goes on to argue that the failure of the nation-building experiments in Iraq and Afghanistan illustrate the fallacy of America's post-9/11 conception of military intervention:

What the next US administration can learn from this is that the "war on terrorism" framework, together with popular fears about the spread of weapons of mass destruction, can enable greater military activism, but only of a certain type: fast and decisive. An entirely different matter are protracted campaigns of occupation and those that either seem detached from clear security threats or seem to diverge from the warfghting model. It is disconcerting, then, that the American policy "center" seems to be trending away from a recognition of this lesson. Instead, it is gravitating to a putative midpoint between the Clinton and Bush administration positions.

By this he means the kinds of "peace and stability operations" (PSO's) that are now commonly referred to as nation-building. He wraps up by summarizing the true cost of not accurately assessing the failure of our recent military interventionism:

This failure points to a more fundamental one: seized by a sense of military primacy, we have failed to appreciate the difference and the distance between achieving military effects and achieving political-strategic ones.

This paragraph in particular jumped out at me, because it seems to encapsulize the national security debate embodied by an Obama-McCain presidential campaign:

In light of America's misadventure in Iraq - its great costs and poor results - it seems unlikely that the US public will be easily won [over] to attempt similar experiments on a grander scale. Not even the "war on terrorism" or the notion of a "global Islamic insurgency" seem sufficient motivators.

Clearly, McCain is running on the assumption that Iraq still satisfies the three-point checklist Connetta articulates above. Obama (and, to a lesser extent, Clinton) makes the case that the predominant challenge facing America is the political-strategic aftermath of the Iraq War, rather than the (mistaken) national security threat that lead to our invasion. The national security aspect of the campaign will boil down to which of the two competing narratives the American voters embrace.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iraq   

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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Can Blackwater Save Darfur?

I'm not really sure what to make of this Michael Walzer TNR piece. He begins by making a pretty good point: People who oppose the use of private military contractors (read: mercenaries) often assume that the case for their argument is so self-evident that they don't actually have to make it. So Walzer offers a corrective by going ahead and making a pretty good case against the use of mercenaries in the conduct of war. The basis of his argument is the lack of accountability that results, both for the mercenaries themselves (which has been widely criticized) but also for the government that employs them (which has gotten less attention).

Simply put, the use of military force is a political act that should be part of the political calculus by which any government is judged. By using mercenaries (and Walzer uses Bill Clinton's use of them in the Serbo-Croatian war as an example), a government gets to enjoy the benefits or suffer the consequences of the outcome, but not actually be held politically accountable by its electorate, since the actual deployment is largely invisible.

Walzer also highlights the logical inconsistency of trying to stabilize a country like Iraq (an operation which as much as anything implies reining in private militias in order to return the monopoly on the use of force to the state), through the use of... private militias.

But just when I expected Walzer to wrap up and close the deal, he pivots:

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule...

Since neither the United Nations nor NATO has any intention of deploying a military force that would actually be capable of stopping the Darfur genocide, should we send in mercenaries...?

Whatever Blackwater's motives, I won't join the "moral giants" who would rather do nothing at all than send mercenaries to Darfur... But we should acknowledge that making this exception would also be a radical indictment of the states that could do what has to be done and, instead, do nothing at all.

Now I admit that after an initial "WTF?!?" double-take, I actually considered the proposition, and wondered whether it's not, after all, the kind of bold gambit that might actually be needed, given the diplomatic gridlock that's got the world sitting on its hands while a bunch of thugs go about the business of methodically committing crimes against humanity.

But in the final analysis, to believe that Blackwater or any other mercenary outfit could somehow lock down that corner of the world, given the highly complex ethno-sectarian-politico-tribal dynamics at play, involves a willing suspension of disbelief. The truth is, Darfur -- like Baghdad -- is a cautionary tale about the dangers of allowing guys with guns to operate without any accountability. Adding Blackwater to what's already a bloody and tragic mix is simply adding more of the problem and calling it a solution.

Walzer's frustration and disgust with the world's failure to act is exemplary. But I think the rule he articulates stands up better than its exception. A military intervention might very well be necesssary in Darfur. But if it happens, it should be under the flag of a nation or the flag of a collection of nations, not that of a private militia operating under cover of political invisibility.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iraq   

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Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Fallacy Of The Surge

This is important, and not just for what Gian Gentile says about the mistaken credit given to the Surge for reducing violence in Iraq. It's a military truism that an army often prepares to fight the last war. So while there are a number of positive conclusions to be drawn about the U.S. Army's adoption of a more nuanced counterinsurgency posture, it's also important to remember that there is no guarantee that the next enemy the American military faces will be an insurgency.

Between the pre-invasion purges (Shinseki) and post-invasion failures (Sanchez, Casey) of the old school generals, Iraq has become a closed feedback loop selecting for new school counter-insurgency strategists (Petraeus, Odierno). Obviously Casey failed upwards, and General Fallon seems like a throwback. But the danger of the military establishment and, more likely, Congress getting seduced by "this year's model" is a real one.

Given the size of the American defense budget, though, there's no reason why the military can't be balanced, with both classic and asymmetric capacities. Especially if people like Gentile, Thomas Barnett (here and here) and Fred Kaplan (here) continue to push back against the trend towards all COIN, all the time.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Sunday, March 2, 2008

Gaza Outsourcing

To get a sense of what's going on in Gaza right now, just go read Laura Rozen. She's got all the essential links and analysis. One thing, though, that I haven't seen mentioned yet among all the talk of possible local brushfires (Gaza, West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, etc.) is the impact Hamas-Israel and Hezbollah-Israel conflicts might have on Iran's activity in Iraq. The Iranians have already demonstrated how much they can contribute to improving the security situation there. A three-front war between Israel, Hamas, Fatah and Hezbollah would seem like the kind of scenario they would use to demonstrate how much they can contribute to worsening it.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   The Middle East   

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Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Surge's Bitter Paradox

I've got a hunch that we're on the cusp of a popular Surge backlash, more widespread than what critics have suggested for the past few months. And when it does gather force, it will probably sound pretty much like what Sam Brannen, of the CSIS, says here. It's already clear that the improved security environment in Iraq has not led to increased Iraqi investment in the political process in Baghdad. Brannen points out, though, what I've yet to see mentioned, namely that it has instead led to increased American investment in the political process in Baghdad.

Increasingly, the United States has driven the Iraqi political process not just by setting benchmarks for Iraq's parliament but also by choosing winners and losers in the informal political processes that most define the country's power landscape. The United States is now the thread that binds Iraq, and it is clear that a serious unraveling of the situation would occur were this thread suddenly to be pulled away.

In other words, instead of making it easier for us to leave Iraq, the Surge has made it more difficult. And if that doesn't qualify a military tactic as a failure, I don't know what does.

But I'm beginning to think that to call the Surge a military tactic, or to speak of it as having caused some outcome or not, is a bit unfair. At some point, when we speak of the Surge, we'll be referring more to a moment in time than to a military tactic or troop count. A moment that preceded the painful realization that no matter how much ground we eventually control in Iraq, we will have little control over the outcome.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Turkey, The Kurds, And Iran

Over at WPR, I spoke with a well-informed European official about the IAEA's Iran report. On a hunch, I asked him what kind of strategic impact Turkey -- which has really stayed on the sidelines of this issue -- could make by actively siding with the West's position. Without hesitation he said it would make a huge difference. In addition to the obvious reasons (Islamic country, regional power, etc.), he explained that Turkey is one of the countries in the region he would be most worried about seeking a nuclear weapons capacity should Iran aquire a nuclear bomb. Although he did not explicitly connect the dots, I interpreted that to mean that by coming down firmly on the side of containing the Iranian program, Turkey would send a strong signal to the rest of the region of their own intentions. That in turn would shore up Western efforts to enlist other regional players to contain, rather than compete with, the Iranian program.

That's important to keep in mind for putting Turkey's Iraq incursion into context. American military commanders emphasized the difference yesterday between the U.S. receiving advance notice of the incursion and the U.S. approving the incursion. But that's a distinction very few people will find convincing, least of all the Kurds, who reminded the U.S. (in the form of a resolution by the Kurdish Regional Parliament) of its obligation to defend the territorial integrity of Iraq. (The resolution also notably called for the closure of Turkish Forward Operating Bases in Iraqi Kurdistan that date back to the 1990's.)

My source categorically refused to speculate on a potential quid pro quo. But should Turkey adopt a more vocal position in opposition to Iran's nuclear program, it would to my mind suggest a priority shift in American strategic calculations in the region, and reflect the extent to which Washington considers the Iranian program a very serious threat.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   Turkey   

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Barzani Draws The Line

There are conflicting reports about just how many troops Turkey has sent into northern Iraq, with the general trend being bearish. Initial Turkish TV reports (passed on by the press) put the number at 10,000, citing unnamed military sources. Reuters put the number at 8,000, or two Turkish brigades. Later television reports lowered it further to 3,000, which the Iraqi government today bid down to 1,000, only to be undersold by the American military command in Iraq which claimed that only a few hundred Turkish troops took part. The Turkish military, meanwhile, closed the bidding by warning that "media reports about the scope of the operation were misleading and exaggerated." (If this keeps up, look for reports of a Kurdish incursion into Turkey by tomorrow.)

To my eyes the real story here is still the confrontation between armored troops from Turkey's FOB near Dihok and Kurdish Peshmerga forces. As you can see for yourself with the magic of Google Earth, the Turkish operation has all the hallmarks of a flush and gather operation. (Move out one click and Dihok should appear in the lower lefthand corner of the map. Reports have located the incursion across the Iraqi border from Cukorka, which is in the upper righthand corner. The Turkish FOB is 25 miles northeast of Dohuk, or not far from the pinhead in the center of the map.) The Iraq-based Turkish forces that were turned back by the Peshmerga were in all likelihood prevented from intercepting the PKK who according to Turkish military reports are fleeing towards the south.

KRG President Massoud Barzani immediately left for Dihok to monitor the situation from very close by, while his office released the following statement:

The regional government of Kurdistan will not be a part of the conflict between the Turkish government and the PKK fighters. But at the same time we stress that if the Turkish military targets any Kurdish civilian citizens or any civilian structures then we will order a large-scale resistance.

For Turkey, it's a fine line to walk, since the PKK is a guerilla group with popular support in the area. But the fact that the Peshmerga stepped in to keep the Turkish forces on their "observer" bases suggests that Barzani means business.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Don't Look Up

It looks like Moqtada al-Sadr, or one of his proxies, is threatening to call off his ceasefire again. Normally I don't pay much attention to this regularly recurring story. But this time it reminded me of this recent AP report about a Sunni Awakening Council that had protested an alleged strafing incident by halting its cooperation with the American military. Neither story alone seems very significant, and together they still don't add up to much. But they triggered a line of thought that goes something like this:

We've reached a point in Iraq where everyone has accepted the limits of what they can accomplish by force. More importantly, everyone on the Iraqi side realizes that they can't defeat their sectarian rivals or the US military. And the US realizes that while the Surge has made a difference, specifically with regard to the most heinous bombing attacks, it's largely a result of various Iraqi factions standing down that the security situation has improved so dramatically.

But no one is doing any of this out of the goodness of their hearts. They all want something in return. The US wanted decreased sectarian violence because it was the only way to maintain the legitimacy of a continued military presence, and by and large the Iraqi factions that have chosen to cooperate with us have delivered.

But what about Moqtada? What does he want? What is it he's trying to trade his continued cooperation for? According to the Guardian article cited above, he just wants someone to stop the Badr Brigades that have infiltrated the Iraqi security apparatus from targeting his guys. Now the question is, who in Iraq at the moment can deliver that concession? And who can deliver whatever it is the Sunnis cooperating in the Awakening Councils ultimately want?

It seems like a stretch to argue that the US can, and that strikes a pretty powerful blow to the logic of our continued presence there. Because it means that ultimately we're more indebted to the factions whose cooperation has furthered our tactical aims than they are to us. What's more, with very little effort they can make things very uncomfortable for us, as Moqtada hopes to demonstrate with his latest warning. Sure, he'll pay a price, but he's already paying a price, while getting little in return.

It's as if we're Damocles lying on the couch of the king, not yet aware of the sword hanging above our throat from the ceiling.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Kosovo Afterthought

It struck me as significant that Turkey has decided to recognize Kosovo's independence. So far, most of the countries that have opposed the move are motivated by fears of setting a precedent for their own sizable minority groups harboring separatist impulses, something that characterizes Turkey's relationship with its Kurd population. The fact that Kosovo is majority muslim plays a role here, as does Turkey's participation in the KFOR mission. There's also the historic legacy of the Ottoman Empire. And the move will surely be covered with the caveat that it's a particular case, not a general rule. But I can't help but think that a whole bunch of ears perked up in Irbil when the news was announced yesterday.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Monday, February 11, 2008

The Audacity Of Nope

About halfway through reading this Congressional testimony by Col. Douglas Macgregor (Ret.) explaining why the Joint Declaration of Principles between the US and Iraq more closely resembles the Warsaw Pact-era Brezhnev Doctrine than a US Status of Forces Agreement, it occurred to me that for all the outrage over the executive power grab of the past seven years, the Bush-Cheney administration has done nothing that the Founders did not foresee and anticipate. They understood and accepted as a matter of course that the executive would have a tendency to encroach on the powers of Congress.

But while the Founders also understood the corrosive effect of political parties on a democracy, I think what might very well have surprised them about today's political climate would be the degree to which Congress, faced with the Bush-Cheney putsch, has simply rolled over. From torture to habeas corpus to domestic wiretapping to signing statements, President Bush might have run roughshod over the Constitution, but Congress did nothing to stop him.

It's worth thinking about that for a moment, now that interest in the presidential campaign has reached a frenzied peak. A lot of thought and discussion has been devoted to which of the two Democratic candidates would be most likely to pull back from the expansive precedent of the Bush imperial presidency. Less has gone into identifying and promoting the kind of Congressional leadership in the Democratic Party that will actually push back against executive overreach.

With the superdelegates (of whom Congressional Democrats make up roughly a third) poised to decide the party's nominee, now would be a good time to consider just what Congress will be getting in return for its tie-breaking Convention votes. Obviously these sorts of deals are made between individuals. But hopefully there will be some institutional dealmaking going on as well.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Monday, February 11, 2008

What David Wants, David Gets

Given how gradually he's risen and how deftly he's handled the press along the way, you might not have noticed that Gen. David Petraeus now calls the shots for the entire American military. Who cares if freezing the troop drawdown once the five Surge brigades have been deployed out of Iraq come July might break the Army? If David says they stay, Gates and the Joint Chiefs can hem and haw all they want. In the end, they'll come around.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Friday, February 1, 2008


One thing no one's mentioned about the improved casualty figures out of Iraq is that they seem to have flatlined at just about the level they were at in 2005. In other words, they've gone down dramatically from their peak, but have held steady for the past three months at about four to five hundred deaths a month. Even if we assume for argument's sake that the security gains aren't lost once the Surge is drawn down, it seems like a stretch to imagine that there will be continued improvement with fewer troops on the ground. Which means we're stuck with this level of violence for the time being. And that doesn't strike me as particularly good news.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Understanding Reconciliation

I'm going to tread lightly on this one because people who are a good deal more knowledgeable about Iraqi politics than I am have been expressing some puzzlement over it. But there's been a recent flurry of Memoranda of Understanding coming out of Iraq, creating if not necessarily a new political landscape, then at least the outlines of the shape of things to come.

In late December, the two major Kurdish political parties, headed by Massoud Barzani and Jalil Talabani, signed a MoU with the leader of the Sunni opposition Iraqi Islamic Party, Tarik al-Hashemi. The agreement basically amounted to a power-sharing arrangement in Ninewa Province, and in particular the city of Mosul, scene of particularly brutal violence targetting the Kurdish population. It seemed to signal a possible Kurdish split from the governing coalition of PM al-Maliki. But Marc Lynch wasn't quite sure what to make of it, and Spencer Ackerman found it particularly puzzling that the agreement heavily favored the Kurds' position in the province, calling into question Hashemi's reasons for signing it.

Among the questions raised by the Kurdish-Sunni alliance was whether or not Iyad Allawi, a bitter rival of PM al-Maliki, would join them to bring down al-Maliki's coalition government. The answer came in an announcement this weekend of a MoU signed by a broad range of Shiite and Sunni political parties -- including Allawi's Iraqi National List, the Sadrist bloc, and, according to the AP, al-Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party -- basically reaffirming the Maliki government's positions in its dispute with the Kurds over oil and gas jurisdiction and the resolution of Kirkuk's status.  (It's worth mentioning that AFP didn't mention Maliki's party as being a signatory to the agreement, and suggested that the MoU could serve as the forerunner of a coalition that could immediately pressure the Maliki government and potentially unseat it.)

Three things immediately occur to me from reading these reports. The first is to wonder whether the sudden emergence of an amnesty law for ex-Baathists, which had been one of the principle points of contention between Hashemi and Maliki, wasn't a tactical maneuver by Maliki and this second MoU group not only to undermine the logic of Hashemi's new alliance, but also to isolate the Kurds. The fact that al-Sadr, previously opposed to such a law, voted for it seems to suggest this might be the case.

The second is that a lot was recently made of a tactical alliance between al-Sadr and Abdul al-Haziz's SIIC party in Basra. It seems significant that while al-Sadr signed the new MoU, al-Haziz did not. Al-Haziz is also a proponent of an autnomous Shiite region in Southern Iraq similar to the KRG in the north, another point of tension between him and al-Sadr. So I'm very interested to see where he comes down on this issue. Should he side with the central government against the Kurds (still technically part of the Maliki coalition) he undermines his claims for a similar Shiite arrangement in the South. Should he oppose the government's position, it risks re-opening the hostilities with al-Sadr (a conflict in which, by all accounts, al-Haziz has the upper hand).

The third is that all the political construction that has occurred in Iraq to date has been based on kicking the tough, divisive issues -- Kirkuk, de-Baathization, oil revenue sharing -- down the road. Which is why "political reconciliation" has become a post-Surge catchphrase for a benchmark of progress, but it's in fact a misleading one. Because many of the competing claims and interests quite simply can't be reconciled. What's needed to elevate Iraq from the legal fiction it is today into an actual nation-state worthy of the name is an acceptance on all sides to submit to the political arena as the binding arbiter of these disputes. Instead, what seems to be happening is that everyone is using the political arena to confirm their worst suspicions and to draw the battle lines, while getting their militias ready to settle the score the moment America leaves. If not before.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Back In The Red Zone

There's a trifecta of stories today featuring Iran. Any one of them would strike me as pretty alarming. But the three together seems like a very clear indication that we've entered something of a critical moment in this long-simmering stand-off.

For starters, IAEA chief Mohamed ELBaradei wrapped up his visit to Tehran where he met with President Ahmadinejad, but also with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who rarely meets with heads of multi-lateral organizations. The significance of the talks boils down to two principle announcements. First, while reaffirming their defiance of American pressure, the Iranians have agreed to fill in the missing elements of the history of their covert nuclear procurement program within the coming month. Second, they've also revealed a program to develop sophisticated centrifuges capable of a must faster uranium enrichment capacity. Both announcements are very bad news.

The first is troubling because it will almost certainly be spun as evidence of Iran's increased cooperation with the IAEA and therefore reason for reducing the urgency of diplomatic pressure on Tehran. But this is misleading, because Iran has already demonstrated its willingness to clarify the history of its procurement program. Where it has proven less cooperative is in allowing unannounced and intrusive access to all of its nuclear program's sites to IAEA inspectors (the so-called Additional Protocol). This intrusive inspection regime is the real safeguard against military applications of the nuclear program, and yesterday's talks produced no concrete progress on that score.

What's more, the revelation of a cutting-edge centrifuge development program is sure to set off red flags in Washington and Jerusalem, for two reasons. First, if successful, it would greatly reduce the amount of time necessary to enrich the needed uranium for military use. And second, the work is being carried out in an installation to which Iran has denied access to IAEA inspectors, reinforcing fears that Tehran is basically using cooperation on known components of its program to shield progress in unknown components.

In other news out of Iraq, the Sunday Times of London reports that the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Gen. Mohammed Ali Jafari, secretly visited the Green Zone last month to press Tehran's demands that the fate of Iranian diplomats (read: Revolutionary Guard agents) detained by US forces be included on the agenda of upcoming US-Iran ambassadorial talks on the Iraq security situation. The story's wording leaves ambiguous whether the General, who is on Washington's "most wanted" list, met with American or Iraqi officials while in Baghdad.

The visit, if true, would seem to increase the significance of both the recent naval incidents reported in the Strait of Hormuz, as well as a statement made by Gen. Petraeus to the effect that there's been an increase this month in the use of bombs typically credited to Iranian agents in Iraq. One possibility is that the US is using trumped up claims to ratchet up its rhetoric towards Tehran. But another is that the Revolutionary Guards are raising the heat with provocative gestures designed to demonstrate just how much damage they can do to American interests should they not get their "diplomats" released.

In effect, Iran has doubled down on its posture vis-a-vis the US: no concessions on the nuclear front and a very aggressive position in Iraq and the Strait of Hormuz. What makes it so alarming is that it demonstrates not only a willingness to play with fire, but also a refusal to provide any face-saving position for the US, which will have to weigh its response very carefully. I'd been wondering about the Pentagon's decision to go public with the naval incidents last week, and now I think I understand why they did. In the past, publicly pointing the finger at Tehran, for instance in Iraq, seems to have gotten results, indicating that Tehran was concerned about protecting its image. We'll soon see whether the same approach works, post-NIE.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Pipeline Diplomacy

Contrary to what an article I cited yesterday claimed, The New Anatolian reports that Russia did in fact increase its gas deliveries to Turkey to make up for the shortfall resulting from the shutdown of its Iranian pipeline. It also reported that following discussions between Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and Iranian President Ahamdinejad, Iran's deliveries should be back to normal come Monday.

Still, there are a lot of reasons to think this whole episode had more to do with regional jockeying than with the weather, although as always with pipeline diplomacy, that served as an excuse. Not much mention was made in the American press of the American proposal that Turkey serve as a regional energy hub for Iraqi and Eurasian energy traffic, but I think it's a huge development, central to the way the Bush administration envisions the short-term strategic alignment in the region: using a combination of energy-poor Turkey and energy-rich Iraq and Azerbaijan to counter Russia's influence in Eurasian energy markets and Iran's expansion in the Middle East.

The sticking point had been the PKK, but the Kurds are above all else businessmen. And since Turkey is already the largest investor in Iraqi Kurdistan, they've got a lot of incentive to let Turkey and the US take care of the PKK, so that afterwards they can all take care of business.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Iraq   Russia   Turkey   

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Friday, January 11, 2008

No Apologies

I think Matthew Yglesias is close here, but he and others who point to Hillary Clinton's refusal to apologize for her Iraq War authorization vote are missing the real vulnerability of her position. Clinton's explanation, both for her vote and her refusal to apologize for it, boils down to the claim that in voting for the authorization, she believed she was only giving President Bush negotiating leverage for a diplomatic resolution of the UN WMD inspection stand-off. And it's a solid defense in that it allows her to deny the accusation that she supported the war, as opposed to the threat of war.

The line of attack it really opens up, though, is actually far more damaging, because it goes to the heart of her current campaign message: competency and experience. Because if Clinton really believed that the Bush administration -- and even worse the Bush administration as it was then constituted -- was simply going to use the authorization as a negotiating ploy, then she hasn't actually benefitted much from all her experience in Washington. I've spoken to French diplomats who were convinced as early as spring 2001 (ie. before 9/11) that given the pretext, the Bush administration would invade Iraq. So if Clinton claims to have been unaware of the real significance of her vote, she's either lying or not as savvy as she claims.

It's a potentially devastating attack, because it really calls Hillary Clinton's major claim to the nomination -- that she understands how to fight the partisan battles in Washington -- into question. But so far, people have gotten caught up on the politics of apologies.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Diyala Surprise

What's significant about Diyala in particular, in addition to everything Matthew Yglesias mentions, is that it's also the first area that the Surge drawdown impacted. Back in November, the Pentagon announced that it would be bringing 3000 troops stationed in Diyala home, with the province being added to the bailiwick of a brigade operating near Baghdad:

Soldiers from the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, will not be replaced by a new unit when they leave the ethnically and religiously mixed province north of Baghdad by January, U.S. military officials said.

Instead, troops from the larger 4th Striker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, located near Baghdad, will take over the area...

Here's how the Armed Forces Press Service described the move:

The redeployment of the brigade shows the coalition's confidence in Iraqi security forces and reflects the overall improved security in the country, Smith said. The brigade -- based in Diyala province -- will not leave a vacuum in the province.

"We do not intend to give back our hard-fought ground," Smith said. "Repositioning of coalition and Iraqi security forces will ensure that overall force levels and combat capability levels in Diyala will be tailored to meet emerging threats."

And consistent with the script, as recently as three weeks ago, the second-in-command in Iraq, Gen. Raymond Odierno, was expressing his confidence that the troop reduction would not jeopardize security gains.

But oddly enough, in a DoD press briefing that coincided with Odierno's pronouncement, reporters asked Maj. Gen Richard Sherlock about reports they'd gotten from commanders in Diyala that they needed more troops, in particular to deal with the flow off insurgents from Baghdad. At one point they specifically questioned the wisdom of beginning the drawdown in the very region that seemed to be serving as a refuge for insurgents fleeing the Surge in Baghdad. Sherlock basically dodged the question, but not before he'd dropped this pearl:

The other thing they'll find different about those areas now, rather than three years ago, is that the people are much less willing to put up with the kind of brutal attacks that those groups bring on the people.

Of course, by all accounts, the insurgents, which as usual have been dubbed Al Qaeda in Iraq, were nowhere to be found when this week's operation -- a closely guarded secret, especially from the Iraqi troops in which we have so much confidence -- was launched, leaving the sneaking suspicion that maybe they enjoy more popular support than the General was letting on.

All of which is to say that there's nothing surprising about all of this. To the contrary, it was foreseen as soon as it was announced. Whether or not it develops into a major fiasco remains to be seen. It could be that the security situation holds. But if it doesn't, no one can say there weren't any warning signs.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Monday, January 7, 2008

A Cause To Unite Around

Kevin Drum links to the ICCC's latest civilian casualty figures from Iraq, and doesn't see much room for analysis. It reminded me to go check out Iraq Body Count's year-end report on civilian casualties, and I think they give a little more meat to chew on. Not that they don't register a decline. While IBC's totals are significantly higher than the ICCC's numbers (roughly double per month), they still show a dramatic drop in the violence that begins in September and corresponds roughly to the Surge becoming fully operational.

What's revealing, though, is where the casualties are taking place, and how they are occurring. So, for instance, while Baghdad casualties have dropped steeply (from 1168 in July to 294 in Novemeber), casualties outside of Baghdad have registered a significantly lower rate of decline (1363 in July to 683 in November). While this confirms that the troop presence has had its intended effect in Baghdad, as well as a possible "rippling out" effect elsewhere, it also confirms that the Surge, which is already in its initial drawdown phase, has not had a blanket impact on the country as a whole.

Another revealing aspect of the IBC's report is the kind of casualties now occurring. As has already been widely acknowledged, the Surge has either accomplished or coincided with one of its primary goals: sectarian murders in Baghdad accompanied by torture have shown the steepest decline of all types of casualties. More troubling is that deaths of civilian bystanders, including children, from military operations involving American forces have almost doubled since last year ( 544–623 in 2006 to 868–1,326 in 2007). Significantly, according to the IBC airstrikes have been responsible for the "vast majority" of these incidents.

Unfortunately the IBC doesn't break this last number down in a month-by-month analysis. But it evokes the Pyrrhic victory that the Surge represents as our presence evolves from a counter-insurgency to a classic occupation in the absence of any viable Iraqi government. So far we've paid the Sunnis to stop killing us, Tehran has paid the Shiites to stop killing us, and we've put up concrete barriers to keep the Sunnis and Shiites from killing each other. But no one's really made peace.

So if there's a lull in the violence, it strikes me as a very dangerous sort of lull. It's the kind of silence in which a "Blackwater incident" or a stray air-to-ground missile echoes even louder. So far we haven't been able to unite Iraqis around a common cause. But that could change, and not necessarily in the way we'd like.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Playing Both Sides

A few days ago, the Turkish Daily News reported (and Ha'aretz followed up) on an Israeli-operated drone system that the Turkish air force is using to target its strikes against the PKK. The leased Heron UAV, along with its Israeli operating team, is a stopgap measure put in place as a result of delivery delays in a deal between the Turkish air force and Israel Aerospace Industries. The planes, ordered in 2004 in a deal reportedly worth several hundred million dollars, were scheduled to be delivered in October, but have been delayed until at least next year.

The report demonstrates the significant challenges posed not only by Turkey's hot conflict with the PKK but also by its cold conflict with Iraqi Kurdistan. Like the US, Israel is trying to play both sides of the border, developing security ties with Iraqi Kurds at the same time that it's trying to maintain its traditionally close relationship with Turkey. And like the US, Israel is trying balance Turkey's demands for security co-operation against the PKK with a desire to avoid alienating the Kurds, who are paying customers sitting on lucrative oil reserves.

In the long term, whether or not the US and Israel will be forced to pick a side will depend on just how far towards an independent state the Kurds are determined to go. Turkey also has enormous trade and development investments in Iraqi Kurdistan and has every reason to seek cordial relations. The Kurdish parliament just agreed to another six-month postponement of the Kirkuk referendum, which kicks a potentially explosive can a bit further down the road.

But in the short term, the major sticking point is how to deal with the PKK. And Turkey's heavy-handed winter air campaign against PKK mountain positions risks putting everyone on the spot.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Global Awakening

Kevin Drum already took care of what the Maliki government's promise to disband armed Sunni groups once they've calmed "restive areas" means for our efforts at establishing a stable Iraqi state. So I'll limit my observations to the fact that defining "Awakened" as "pointing the weapons you bought with our money at somebody other than us" is obviously incompatible with the notion of a central government with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Our enthusiasm for it as a method reveals not only the legal fiction that is the current Iraqi central government, but also our acceptance that arriving at a more legitimate replacement will almost certainly require the outbreak of a full-scale Iraqi Civil War.

On a broader level, though, the Anbar Awakening model needs to be understood as part of an emerging temptation in American foreign policy circles to accept the fragmentation of multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian states to their lowest common denominator. An outright Iraqi Civil War will almost certainly result in the partition of Iraq into three separate states, even if the degree to which they'll be federated remains to be seen. That's the direction the Anbar Awakening model leads to, and that's how it needs to be understood when it's proposed for defusing the insurgencies in Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan.

The problem in Iraq is similar to that of Kosovo, namely that there are other regional powers that have interests diametrically opposed to ours. Just as Russia has its reasons to oppose the Western-backed unilateral declaration of independence in Kosovo, so do Turkey and Iran have vested interests in preventing the emergence of a Kurdish region that increasingly resembles an independent nation-state. The same can be said for Pakistan and Iran vis a vis Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal areas.

America's fatigue with nation-building is understandable. But if accepting the atomization of failed states simply displaces the instability of local conflicts to the regional rivalries between global power, we run the risk of trading shortterm tactical convenience for longterm strategic advantage.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iraq   

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

Decision Time

Turkey bombs PKK camps in northern Iraq, a spokesman for the Peshmerga militia declares that they'll defend Kurdish civilians in the event of an incursion, and what looked like a successfully resolved crisis creeps back into the red zone.

Meanwhile, air attacks being the most inflammatory and least effective method of counterinsurgency, you've got to wonder what's happened to flip the switch in the Turkish decision-making circles that they'd basically toss aside six months of skillful diplomacy for what amounts to playing with matches in a powder keg. A stable Iraqi Kurdistan currently occupies at least the top three positions on America's foreign policy priority list, so if the Turks are trying to force us into making a longterm strategic choice between them and the Iraqi Kurds, they seem to be going about it in a way, and at a time, that guarantees we choose the latter.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Physics Of Whack-A-Mole

Iraq might be out of sight, out of mind Stateside, but it's important to keep in mind that private-sector torture chambers with juiced iron bedframes and blood still coating the knives and swords don't get discovered in countries on the path towards stability. American military commanders linked the grisly discovery to Al Qaeda, which we already know is a term used very fluidly by American military commanders, as well as to the displaced violence that accompanied insurgents trying to stay one step ahead of the Surge.

Either way, it's evidence that while the security situation might be dramatically improved and various anti-American factions either co-opted or weakened, the conditions that favor violence do not seem to have been resolved. From a physics perspective, the kinetic violent energy has not been spent, it's been re-converted into a state of potential violent energy.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Endgame

Small Wars Journal has got the highlights of this After Action Report delivered by Gen. Barry McCaffrey (ret.) following his recent tour of Iraq. In a nutshell, he confirms that the security situation has improved dramatically, that the economy is beginning to revive (although with 50% un-employment, there's not a whole lot of downside left), that the Kurdish region is a stable autonomous state enjoying rapid economic growth and that Al Qaeda has been tactically defeated. That's about it for the good news.

The bad news is that the central government is non-existant, Iraq has hemorrhaged its professional class, its internal refugees are in misery, and its neighborhoods are dominated by armed thugs whose only legitimacy is their declared allegiance to higher-order militias. Most significantly, while McCaffrey suggests that a counterinsugency campaign comprised of twenty-five combat brigades stationed in Iraq over the next decade would probably succeed, he ackowledges that the US military is already unravelling with only twenty brigades deployed there now.

McCaffrey heaps praise on Bob Gates for having quickly and effectively cleaned up the huge mess Donald Rumsfeld left behind. He suggests that Gates can put President Bush's successor in good position to manage the endgame by reducing troop levels to twelve brigades by January 2009. Unfortunately, the best he offers in terms of hope for a longterm successful outcome is that a reduced American military presence just might manage to hold the central government together by the seams until bottom-up reconciliation reaches Baghdad.

So after all the cost in lives, resources, international standing and domestic cohesion, our hopes for a stable outcome in Iraq amount to crossing our fingers and making a wish.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Airheads, Redux

According to a spokesman for the Kurdish Regional Government, Turkey sent 300 troops into a "deserted mountainous area" in northern Iraq overnight. A Turkish official reported that the troops were sent as permanent reinforcements for the forward operating bases Turkey has maintained in the area since 1996. FOB's that have generally functioned to locate PKK positions for artillery and air strikes. Here's the takeaway quote from the article:

Abdullah, the spokesman for the regional Kurdish government, also criticized the operation and cautioned that Turkish forces should "be careful not to harm civilians" who might be living in the area.

"If the Turkish military conducts limited operations against the rebels, this is a problem of their concern," he said. "But if this ... leads to harm for civilians, we will absolutely be against that and reject that."

So there's the red line for just what the Kurds will tolerate. And it's a red line that Turkey is almost certain to cross should it insist on launching air strikes on PKK mountain camps rendered unreachable by ground troops due to winter conditions.

Having followed this story closely since this spring, I can't help but conclude that Turkey is snatching defeat from the jaws of victory here. They patiently used a blend of sabre-rattling and diplomatic initiatives over a period of six months to gain American and Kurdish cooperation in their fight against the PKK. What's more, the winter is traditionally a time of reduced PKK activity due to the conditions in the mountains. Even if there were isolated PKK attacks, they would only have lent added legitimacy to an effective ground operation launched next spring.

Given all that, the decision to launch airstrikes seems awfully short-sighted.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Monday, December 17, 2007


As much as anything else, Turkey's latest airstrikes on PKK camps or Kurdish villages (depending on who you believe) demonstrate why any country relying on air power as their primary method of counterinsurgency is asking for trouble. This is doubly true when the targets are inaccessible mountain locations where it's difficult to get independent verification of one's claims.

It also violated the principle component of what made the working arrangement to deal with the PKK acceptable to everyone involved, namely reasonable deniability. Targeted precision raids based on American intelligence are one thing. Attention-grabbing strikes comprised of twenty to fifty F-16s sent out in waves up to 100 km into Iraqi territory are quite another. Especially when Iraqi airspace is guaranteed by America. (Note to the American ambassador to Turkey who issued a statement denying that Ankara got an American go-ahead: The idea of deniability does not mean denying things that are obviously undeniable. It's means doing things in such a way that a denial seems at least somewhat plausible.)

According to The New Anatolian, Ankara plans on doing this all winter long. Good grief.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

New & Improved

It's funny. Every six months or so, there comes a moment when, thinking about the situation in Iraq, I say to myself, 'We haven't heard much about Moqtada al-Sadr lately. I wonder if this time he's really out of the game for good.' Systematically, no sooner do I get done formulating the thought than an article immediately appears explaining that Moqtada al-Sadr is busy gearing up to get back into the game. And wouldn't you know it, this time is no different:

Away from public view, however, Sadr's top aides say the anti-American cleric is anything but idle. Instead, he is orchestrating a revival among his army of loyalists entrenched in Baghdad and Shiite enclaves to the south -- from the religious centers of Karbala and Najaf to the economic hub of Basra. What is in the making, they say, is a better-trained and leaner force free of rogue elements accused of atrocities and crimes during the height of the sectarian war last year.

Many analysts say what may reemerge is an Iraqi version of Lebanon's Hizbullah -- a state within a state that embraces politics while maintaining a separate military and social structure that holds powerful sway at home and in the region.

Now, obviously, claims about a "new & improved" Mahdi Army that come from Sadr's top aides should be taken with a grain of salt. As an analyst quoted in the article points out, "The Mahdi Army is far from being the organized fighting machine like Hizbullah." What's more, according to a DoD intelligence analyst based in Baghdad, Sadr's recent unilateral ceasefire has served him well and is in no danger of unraveling.

More significant is what the article says about Iran, namely that it's been hedging its bets by supporting various rival Shiite militias in Iraq, including the Mahdi Army. Which means that when the dust clears in Basra, Tehran stands to gain an ally no matter who comes out on top.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Saturday, December 8, 2007

Mutually Assured Dysfunction

I'll preface this post by saying that Matthew Yglesias' recent critical line on Hillary Clinton's foreign policy approach (as well as the team she's already assembled to advise her campaign) has been eagle-eyed in its analysis. He's really managed to weed out the obfuscations (tough with Clinton) and nail down the principle issue at hand: unilateral pre-emption as a plank of non-proliferation policy. In so doing, he's helped me bring my own thoughts on the matter more into focus. And while I think his conclusion that Democrats should categorically renounce unilateral pre-emption is admirable in principle, I think there are reasons why in the practice of foreign policy, it's not advisable.

To begin with, a minor clarification of terms. What Yglesias is in fact referring to is not pre-emptive intervention, which is a first strike in anticipation of an already ordered or already launched attack recognized in international law as a legitimate act of self-defense, but rather preventive intervention, a first strike in anticipation of a potential future threat, whether of attack or a less advantageous balance of power. Clearly, though, his point of reference is the Iraq War. And while he's right to conclude that the catastrophic results of the war weigh strongly in favor of abandoning preventive intervention, he's wrong to call for a public renunciation.

The decision to launch the Iraq War was a watermark for post-Cold War geopolitics because it demonstrated both the limits of American unilateral intervention and the limits of the multi-lateral deterrent on American power. In other words, it showed that while we can't accomplish anything alone, the world can't stop us from trying. While immediate analysis has focused on the destabilizing impact the episode has had on the global order, I'm convinced that in time it will be regarded as a useful failure. Everyone knows what happens now when the multi-lateral order breaks down, which means that everyone has a clear incentive to make sure it functions better next time around. For that to happen, everyone's got to take a step back towards the middle.

The obvious comparison would be the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which helped ensure that nuclear weapons were never again used, even though the logic of nuclear deterrence demanded that they continue to be stockpiled. In the same way, the Iraq War makes another American unilateral intervention unlikely, but only if the rest of the world has a disincentive to keep them from blocking our interests in mulit-lateral bodies. And that disincentive is paradoxically the possibility of another American unilateral intervention. By taking it off the table, we actually make it more likely, which is why the Iran NIE, contrary to what people are assuming, does not entirely eliminate the possibility of a preventive strike on Iran.

What's more important than a blanket policy renunciation (which wouldn't be worth the paper it would never be written on) is a clear strategic calculus for how we assess imminent, likely and potential threats, and a commitment to addressing them in the context of the multi-lateral order. Nurturing our frayed multi-lateral and bi-lateral alliances would also go a long way towards ensuring we don't go it alone again. Gradually, as we rehabilitate our international standing, the question will recede of its own accord. But in the meantime, any rush to restabilize the multi-lateral order by removing a necessary counterweight might only wind up further destabilizing it.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iran   Iraq   

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Thursday, December 6, 2007

Hard To Please

The Turkey-PKK crisis has cooled down quite a bit since last it made front page news, mainly because President Bush and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemed to have found the ideal solution: the US would help Turkey target pinpoint strikes on PKK bases in Iraq's Kandil Mountains by providing actionable intelligence, the Iraqi Kurds would isolate the PKK from their supply and support base within Iraqi Kurdistan, and everybody would act like everything was hunky dory.

Only trouble is, two days ago, State Department spokesman Chase Beamer complained that the Kurdistan Regional Government wasn't doing enough to rein in the PKK, and today Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan made the same claim. Which is hard to understand in light of this (lengthy) excerpt from the Beamer article:

Under diplomatic pressure from both Ankara and Washington, the regional Kurdish administration in Iraq has started announcing new measures against the PKK almost every day. Following the Turkish military's operations over the weekend, the largely autonomous Kurdish region's peshmerga security forces positioned reinforcement troops near the border in order to prevent PKK infiltrations into Turkish territory. Heavy armament, cannons and armored combat units have also been sent to the area near the border, the Cihan news agency reported on Monday from Qanimasi, northern Iraq.

Peshmerga forces have been on constant guard particularly near the Kandil Mountains, which is a strategic settlement area for the PKK terrorists as well as the northern Iraqi cities of Zakho, Begova, Qanimasi, Amedi, Batufa, Bamerni and Choman, Cihan reported. Only villagers living in nearby villages are allowed to cross into the area after being searched thoroughly by the peshmerga forces deployed there, peshmerga officials said. Small-scale operations are also carried out to curb PKK movements.

The measures, coupled with increased security on the Turkish side of the border, appear to have confined the PKK to the mountainous region, according to Cihan. Over the weekend, an Iraqi-Kurdish official said the PKK, unhappy with the Iraqi Kurdish administration's recent measures to curb its supplies, is a threat to the Iraqi Kurds.

"The PKK is trying to destroy us," said Fazil Mirani, secretary-general of Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). "We have fought for 50 years and secured some achievements. We have no intention of giving them up because of the PKK."

For what it's worth, Barzani is the hotheaded President of the KRG who earlier this year threatened to intervene in Turkey's internal affairs should Turkey interfere in the Kirkuk referendum. So the fact that the Secretary General of his political formation is basically cutting the line on the PKK is pretty significant. And the deployment of Peshmerga units to the border not to repel the Turks but to contain the PKK is a 180° turnaround from even a month ago. I'm not sure just what the folks in Ankara were hoping for, but they do seem to be a bit demanding on this one.

[And if you're thinking that the main reason I wrote this post was to put the names "Chase Beamer" and "Ali Babacan" in the same sentence, you wouldn't be all wrong.]

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Friday, November 30, 2007

PKK Update

When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with President Bush in Washington to discuss the PKK three weeks ago, northern Iraq was in a state of high alert, with rumors of war swirling and tensions at the boiling point. At the outcome of the meeting, President Bush had promised to take concrete steps to address Turkey's grievances, and Prime Minister Erdogan basically agreed to hold off on plummeting the only stable region in Iraq into conflict and chaos.

So where do things stand now? Kind of a mixed bag. On the positive side, Germany just extradited two PKK militants back to Turkey, which is a strong symbolic gesture considering that one of Turkey's grievances was that no one seemed to be taking their terrorist problem very seriously. In particular, the Turks had complained about western European countries allowing known agents of the PKK to operate with relative impunity, despite the PKK being on the EU's list of terrorist organizations.

It also seems like the Iraqi Kurds, and in particular hardliner Massoud Barzani, have actually decided to crack down hard on the PKK, setting up checkpoints along the arteries leading south from their mountain camps to prevent them from re-supplying. As a result, a report last week had the PKK attempting to re-locate their base of operations into Iran. But since the environment is no less hostile there, another report today suggested they are trying to move their camps to an Armenian-controlled region in Azerbaijan.

Both of these developments, when combined with American forces providing the Turkish special forces with actionable real time intelligence, would seem to have obviated the need for a Turkish cross-border operation.

So why a mixed bag? Because despite the progress, the Turkish Prime Minister's office two days ago authorized the army to conduct just such an operation. You'll remember that the Turkish parliament authorized the use of force last month, which is what brought this lingering crisis to the front burner. Erdogan's authorization could be interpreted as the final green light the military needed before engaging in an operation of their choosing.

There's no guarantee they will actually do so. The Kandil mountains where the PKK bases are located are already a difficult theater of operations. Everything I've read indicates that the winter weather makes them all but impenetrable. On the other hand, perhaps the Turkish military is motivated by the desire to pen the PKK in before they have a chance to re-locate their bases. Either way, this situation just went from "wait-and-see" to "keep your eyes peeled".

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Thursday, November 29, 2007

You Be The Judge

Armchair Generalist on today's DoD blogger's roundtable with Dr. Ali Al-Dabbagh, the Government of Iraq Official Spokesman:

I was more irritated by two of the "correspondents" in our group...The other bozo was from Armed Forces Press Service - he asked (and I'm not kidding), "would you like to express your appreciation to all the US service men and women who want to know their service counted?" Al-Dabbah said some nice things about sacrifice and Iraq's appreciation. What a maroon.

American Forces Press Service on today's DoD blogger's roundtable with Dr. Ali Al-Dabbagh, the Government of Iraq Official Spokesman:

The government of Iraq appreciates the efforts and sacrifices of U.S. servicemembers engaged in the country's fight against insurgents, and it desires a continued American troop presence as Iraqi security forces improve in numbers and capability, an Iraqi government spokesman said today.

Yup. I think Jason nailed it. The guy's a maroon.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Media Coverage   

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Friday, November 23, 2007

Open Source Chaos

In addition to a wave of Stateside optimism, the Anbar Awakening in Iraq has also given rise to a gathering new meme about how to address counterinsurgency, the War on Terror, and the challenges facing failed states in a globalized world. According to this new line of thinking, exemplified by this John Robb post and this Robert Kaplan essay, nation-building -- characterized by establishing democratic institutions and top-down political reconciliation -- doesn't work, especially in quasi-autonomous tribal societies like Anbar province in Iraq and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan.

According to Robb, "Politics and populations in our new global environment fragment faster than they can be assembled into cohesive entities." Robb's answer to "temporary autonomous zones and open-source insurgency"? What he calls "open source militias": Spontaneous, local militia movements that arise in reaction to the inevitable excesses of the initial insurgencies. These militias we do little to shape, supporting them only once they've taken form.

Kaplan limits his argument to the Iraq and Pakistan theatres, but it's easy to see how easily it might be generalized to apply to any location where kinship bonds trump national identity and local tribal loyalties take precedence over allegiance to a distant central government. In such areas, pragmatic opportunism dictates that we align counterinsurgency efforts with local tribal power structures, regardless of the implications for a broader democratizing agenda. For Kaplan, "Progress...means erecting not a parliamentary system, but a balance of fear among tribes and sectarian groups."

Now I don't think either Robb or Kaplan is necessarily wrong here, although it's ironic that Kaplan uses a principle of progressive social science (cultural relativism) to justify a principle of reactionary colonial rule (divide and conquer). But what's significant about their approach, which is sure to gain traction, is that it represents a sort of glum, post-9/11 pessimistic version of the euphoric, post-Cold War optimism that heralded the end of the nation-state and the coming of a harmonic global order. In Robb and Kaplan's vision, instead of being surpassed through supra-national agglomeration or reconfigured on the molecular level through direct NGO action, the state has been effectively put out of reach through a process of controlled atomization. Here's Robb:

The use of a plethora of militias to fight a global open source insurgency from Nigeria to Mexico to Iraq to Pakistan is effective within a grand strategy of delay (it holds disorder at bay while allowing globalization to work). Most beneficially, it eliminates the need for nation-building, massive conventional troop deployments, and other forms of excess.

That's about it in a nutshell: a grand strategy of delay. Needless to say, Robb's oblique reference to "allowing globalization to work" is the key to understanding the argument.

As I said, I don't think either Robb or Kaplan is necessarily wrong. To begin with, there are areas in the world where the writ of the national government is a legal fiction. Beyond that, their vision corresponds to the practical necessities of American foreign policy in its current interventionist formulation. But it's important to remember that the two counterinsurgency wars we're currently fighting, in Iraq and in Afghanistan/Pakistan, are wars that we created. In Iraq, as a direct consequence of removing a non-democratic but functioning state, and in Afghanistan/Pakistan as an indirect consequence of our Soviet-era Afghanistan policy, which instigated the very sort of contained chaos that gave rise to Al Qaeda and which both Robb and Kaplan now suggest we try to manage. (To his credit, Robb does raise the caveat of whether we'll be able to manage "something this complex or this messy".)

As importantly, local populations delivered up to globalization are very often exploited like just another raw commodity. In the absence of nation states to defend their interests, that's how globalization "works". Which is why I'd argue for a middle ground between euphoric post-nation state utopianism and Machiavellian failed nation state pragmatism, one that defends the centrality of the nation state, reinforces its effectiveness, equips it to provide the basic needs and services for its constituents, and encourages it (as much as is reasonably possible) to respond to their grievances and reflect their aspirations.

All of these interventions take enormous effort, strong and effective mult-lateral institutions, and time -- in short, the "forms of excess" that Robb seeks to avoid. But in the long run, they offer a better chance for building a sustainable international order, capable of dealing with the existential, strategic and ethical challenges we have no choice but to overcome if we as a species are to survive.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Global War On Terror   Iraq   Pakistan   

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Going Long Gone

The superficial parallels between Lebanon and Iraq are striking. Both countries have experienced or are in the midst of multi-factional, multi-sectarian civil wars. Both have a neighbor (Syria in Lebanon's case, Iran in Iraq's) intent on integrating the country into its sphere of influence. Both have another neighbor (Israel in Lebanon's case, Turkey in Iraq's) that reserves the right to conduct cross-border military operations in response to terrorist attacks.

So anyone who buys into the "going long" strategy in Iraq, whereby a massive American occupation over twenty years would eventually lead to a stable power-sharing agreement in Baghdad, would do well to take a look at what's going on in Lebanon these days: seventeen years post-conflict, and that country's complicated power-sharing mechanism is deadlocked, with the very real threat of armed conflict as a result.

There's still a few days left to avoid a constitutional crisis, and there's no guarantee that the worst-case scenarios will play out. But what's significant is how persistent the factional, sectarian and political rivalries that tore the country apart remain, how fragile their resolution is proving to be, and how easily manipulated they are by regional rivals (Syria, Iran, the US and Israel) who don't hesitate to interfere in Lebanon's domestic affairs to advance their strategic interests.

Something to think about when considering the costs of stabilizing Iraq.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   The Middle East   

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Fogged Goggles Of War

I understand why Kevin Drum needed a drink after reading this Anne Applebaum column about the collateral damage of Iraq. Applebaum begins by correctly describing the impact of the Iraq War on our credibility, and as I wrote yesterday, Congressional Democrats would do well to pay attention to the way she frames her assessment of the good news out of Iraq (short version: don't get too excited about it).

But after acknowledging the difficulty of convincing people to take anything we say seriously when they basically no longer take anything we say seriously, Applebaum goes on to lament that in such a climate of distrust, we'll never be able to convince our European allies of the need for a military strike. Which effectively leaves us with a policy of crossing our fingers and hoping that Iran either doesn't end up with a bomb, or remains deterrable if it does.

Now, as things stand, I think a unilateral strike on Iran would be disastrous, so to see this kind of stuff on the WaPo editorially page definitely makes me want to reach for a drink, too. I'm also not convinced that the chances of the crossed fingers approach resulting in acceptable outcomes are zero, although that doesn't make it a very attractive policy option.

But having said that, I think that on a broader level, the Iran standoff illustrates the way in which the Iraq War has fogged our own (meaning war opponents) goggles a bit as well. Take for instance Matthew Yglesias' use of a Richard Holbrooke quote about Saddam Hussein and Iraq from back in January 2001 to illustrate the risks of a hawkish Hillary Clinton presidency. As Kevin Drum later pointed out, a hard line on Saddam Hussein was perfectly reasonable in January 2001.

As for Iran's nuclear program, I think that in the absence of the Iraq fiasco, a hard and even bellicose line would be widely regarded as reasonable today as well. In fact, were it not for the aftermath of the Iraq War, there probably would be broad domestic support for a unilateral strike -- or at least the credible threat of the use of force -- and probably tacit support in both Europe and the Middle East as well.

Now that's not to say that such a consensus would have been any more correct today than it was in the run-up to the Iraq War, either on the facts or on the strategic consequences of such a strike. But if in the absence of the Iraq War, the Iran nuclear standoff would have risen to the level of liberal hawks' threat threshhold (which I think is the case), the question becomes, What has the Iraq War changed? Are we simply adjusting our foreign policy to the realities on the ground, or have we re-considered the underlying principles that led to the mistakes in the first place? I think it's a discussion that's worth having, if only to find out whether we're being pragmatic or wise.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   Media Coverage   

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

It's All About The Benjamins

It turns out that in addition to being motivated by resentment of the US occupation, Iraqi insurgents are also strongly influenced by the money Al Qaeda in Iraq pays them to carry out attacks. That, according to a WaPo telephone interview with an AQI mid-level management type currently detained by the Iraqi military. The similarities to how we've gotten Sunni tribes in Anbar to target AQI instead of American troops are strikingly obvious and warrant no discussion.

But the article also brought to mind a point I'd been meaning to make about the confusion in Iraq War terminology. For most of the first three years of the war, the term "insurgency" referred (perhaps inaccurately so) to the combined activities of Iraqi Sunnis and foreign agents of AQI. Earlier this year, though, there was a push to distinguish between the two and increasingly identify AQI as the source of all our problems. Then last month, it was reported that AQI was on the verge of extinction, largely as a result of the celebrated Anbar Awakening. So now here we are, back to reading about "the insurgency" or "insurgents" in articles that are ostensibly referring to AQI, but whose agents are now Iraqis and whose viability may or may not be "significantly more upbeat than the one offered by Iraqi and U.S. officials".

Back in June, Josh Marshall addressed the question of terminology, and I think it bears a re-examination. Amid all the reports of progress and reduced casualties in Iraq, as well as those documenting the violence's migration (if in reduced intensity) to the north of Iraq, it would be useful to know just who it is we're fighting over there now. For starters, I'd like to know exactly who is currently participating in attacks, who and what they're targeting (which is not the same thing as who actually gets hit), and whether or not they represent new participants in the insurgency or seasoned veterans. The last point is significant, because if the insurgency is able to regenerate its ranks, it means that while violence might be dropping, the aggregate number of violent actors might very well be increasing, something that reflects badly on hopes of longterm reconciliation.

Of course, none of that is possible if the major media outlets give the administration a pass by parroting its newspeak.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Hold The Confetti

It turns out that Stephen Biddle's best-case scenario by which recent encouraging developments in Iraq might solidify into stable outcomes entails the continued presence of 80-100,000 American troops for 20-30 years, with just one added ingredient: A whole lot more of the same dumb luck that conspired to save our ass in the first place. So I'm officially backing off from any declarations of an Iraqi endgame until further notice.

That said, it does seem like the new dynamics in Iraq warrant at least a holding pattern to see whether they stick. They certainly make another round of the Congressional Democrats' humiliating, masochistic war-funding strategy an ill-advised exercise in pathetic futility. There were certainly arguments to be made for opposing the Surge and pulling the plug on the War this past spring. They are less compelling now, whether or not the longterm chances for a satisfactory outcome have been fundamentally improved.

At any rate, the drawdown of the Surge has already begun. So a more effective political approach would be to simply applaud the recent turn of events, set a date for reassessing the situation once the Surge has been fully drawn down, and call attention to the risks our new strategic alliances have created. I don't think it would hurt to try to get a more active UN involvement in the peacekeeping and nation-building efforts, in a civilian capacity for sure, with the possibility of turning some of the symbolic functions now carried out by Coalition contingents to UN Blue Helmets.

Most importantly, Democrats need to pound the message home that fortuitous as it may be, the recent improvement in the security environment does nothing to change the underlying strategic catastrophe in terms of lives, money, prestige and influence lost as a result of the Iraq fiasco.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Time For A Friedman Unit?

Like most people (and all bloggers), I like to think I've got a developed analytical sense and an ability to parse through news coverage. But when a day after I suggested that for once a Friedman Unit might be warranted in Iraq, I then read this and this and go back to thinking that we're just putting off an inevitable meltdown, it makes me realize to what extent the media narrative influences my perception and hence my judgment. And while it's true that everyone's entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts, it's important to remember that in this case the facts are in Iraq, which is to say, far away and hard to pin down.

The assessment I based yesterday's post on seems somewhat less authoritative when stacked up against the available anecdotal evidence of just who we're pinning our strategic hopes on in Iraq. It gave me the impression that the Sunni's taste for civil war had been bled dry and that legislative reconciliation wasn't the only way to assess Sunnis' and Shiites' willingness to share power. But the articles cited in the posts I linked to above (and others from the past few weeks) suggest just the opposite: That everyone's just waiting until we're gone to get on with the killing, and that the failure to formalize a power-sharing arrangement poses a potentially fatal threat to stabilizing the country.

I still think that if ever a Friedman Unit was worth a try, it's now, when the cost in terms of lives lost has declined and the potential return in terms of stabilizing the country has risen. But I'm really past knowing whether circumstances dictate postponing firm withdrawal dates right now or not.

One thing does seem certain, though, as a result of the Anbar Awakening. Namely, that by eliminating the real threat of Al Qaeda establishing an Iraqi base, it weakens the strategic logic for what I'd previously considered to be the best course of action: withdrawing the bulk of American forces, but leaving behind a large contingent (50,000 strong) in non-engaged outposts around the country. The choice is now clearly between a full withdrawal or a full commitment. Nothing in between seems justified.

An all-out civil war might result from a full withdrawal, but I'm not convinced by the doomsday scenario that has it spreading conflagration throughout the region. If a bloodbath does break out after we leave, the Saudis, Iranians, Syrians and Turks all have enormous incentives to contain it within Iraq's borders. That bloodbath will be on our hands, though, and that's something to consider in deciding what to do next. The question is, Will we be able to make a better decision six months from now? For the first time, I think the answer is yes.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Friday, November 16, 2007

The Endgame

There are a couple of paradigm-shifting formulations in Stephen Biddle's latest assessment of Iraq over at CFR, enough to make me reconsider my skepticism and reticence with regard to recent reports of real progress. To begin with, he replaces discussions of sectarian violence and casualty levels with the language of civil war. In a nutshell, the Sunnis basically lost the Battle of Baghdad, realize that their broader insurgency would likely suffer the same fate, and are now ready to accept a powersharing arrangement. The Shiites, for their part, while they are not yet comfortable enough to formalize any deal (ie. oil revenue-sharing legislation), are willing to conduct themselves as if one was in place (ie. voluntarily distributing oil-revenues proportionately).

In other words, the various parties are convinced that they can they can no longer achieve a better outcome through armed conflict, which is a prerequisite for any negotiated resolution to a civil war. Biddle conditions future progress on a continued US force commitment, since it's only in the context of the security guarantees provided by an American presence that everyone feels safe enough to run the risk of trusting each other.

My sense is that there are disincentives for a return to civil war even if the US withdraws. Covert Saudi aide for the Sunnis combined with Shiite infighting could level the playing field. There are also major caveats. Biddle is a former advisor to Gen. Petraeus, and one of the major causal factors he cites in all the progress is just dumb luck.

But I wonder if the Democrats' retread war budget maneuvers aren't a little tone deaf to the major shift in dynamics in Iraq, whether real or perceived. If there's ever been an argument for giving this disaster of a policy a little time to play out for the better, now -- while casualties are down and Iran is cooperating in cutting the flow of weapons into the country -- would be it.

Instead of playing a rerun of six months ago (does anyone think they won't cave again this time?), the Democrats should instead be thinking about ways to internationalize the endgame. Try to get the UN back into the country, if only in a civil capacity. Mandate a major diplomatic campaign to internationalize the peacekeeping force. Don't just withdraw American forces. Replace them with UN Blue Helmets.

If the security situation is really as improved as everyone says, it shouldn't be such a hard sell. If, on the other hand, no one's willing to step up, it's a measure of how much Bush has isolated us within the international community, or how bad things still are over there. Or both.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

See No Evil, Hear No Evil

Turkey's military has acknowledged receiving "real time" American intelligence that will help it target pinpoint strikes against the PKK in northern Iraq, while denying reports that it had already begun to carry out air strikes. Meanwhile, representatives from five political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan travelled to Istanbul to meet with Turkish officials. So it looks like there's been at least some movement since the meeting between Erdogan and Bush ten days ago. And I suspect that in the next few weeks we're going to get scattered reports of limited Turkish strikes on PKK positions which will either be denied or overlooked by all parties.

The key person to watch will be Massoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Regional Government. He's consistently been the most confrontational voice among Iraqi Kurds, responding to Turkey's threats and warnings with provocative declarations aimed at tripping all of Turkey's red flags on the Kurdish question. The Turks have for their part categorically refused to officially recognize Barzani as anything other than a "tribal leader". So if they now manage to reach a working compromise, it's safe to say the PKK hurdle has been cleared for now. If not, stay tuned.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

When Anthropologists Attack

I guess it's not surprising that an anthropologist that's accepted an Army invitation to teach the officer corps how to use cultural awareness to finetune American counterinsurgency doctrine will end up having a positive view of the Army's inviting anthropologists to teach the officer corps how to use cultural awareness to finetune American counterinsurgency doctrine. But I have to admit, I find this surprising:

Since the military's mission is to execute the policies of our democratically elected officials, can...anthropologists really deny commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan the cultural knowledge they need to wage a war they were charged by their political leaders with fighting? Is it ethically more correct for them to retreat from the world and leave others to do the fighting? Is the moral response to cynicism about politics and military power to do nothing, censure those who choose to do something? (p. 17)

Those are the questions that Sheila Miyoshi Jager feels are begged by her colleagues' criticism of the cooptation of anthropology for military use. The idea that war, once declared, gives the military a moral claim on academic knowledge seems like a stretch even within the logic of the Bush administration's wartime imperial presidency. But Jager's an eager participant, as is obvious from her rapturous descriptions of Gen. David Petraeus' overhaul of the Army's counterinsurgency manual, the celebrated FM 3-24:

FM 3-24 has been described as "radical" and "revolutionary" by Time Magazine, and it has received rave reviews in the New York Times. Understanding the cause for FM 3-24's enthusiastic reception is itself noteworthy, notes Sarah Sewell, "because it seems to point to the overwhelming feeling of a majority of Americans that the United States is adrift in the world with no foreign policy to guide it in Iraq and elsewhere." Americans are "simply confused about the nation’s strategic purpose in wake of September 11, 2001..." Once again, Americans are wrestling with a "disillusionment about politics and military power, and the debacle in Iraq has reinforced a familiar cynicism that risks disengaging Americans from their government and America from the rest of the world." In an attempt to understand America's new role in the world and also to stem the growing disillusionment about politics at home, they have looked to FM 3-24 for answers: "The doctrine's most important insight is that even -- perhaps especially -- in counterinsurgency, America must align its ethical principles with the nation's strategic requirements." (pp. 13-14)

You got that right, folks. Adrift, confused, disillusioned and disengaged, America is looking to the FM 3-24 for answers. I guess if nothing else pans out, Gen. Petraeus has a promising future on the self-help circuit.

And perhaps I'm misreading that last sentence, but it seems to me that it's gotten the equation frighteningly backwards: It's our strategic requirements that we must measure against our principles. To do the reverse reduces our principles to the level of mere window dressing. It is, nevertheless, ironic to see that the War On Terror, if it accomplished nothing else, did manage to make moral relativism more palatable to the right.

Jager seems to have fallen prey to the anthropologist's worst enemy, namely losing one's academic objectivity and identifying with the host culture. Here's her admiring citation of Petraeus' warm and fuzzy appeal for more culturally sensitive... Wait a minute, what's that word I'm looking for? Oh, yeah. I know. Propaganda:

In chapter 5, "Executing Counterinsurgency Operations," the manual encourages the development of counternarratives "which provide a more compelling alternative to the insurgent ideology and narrative. Intimate cultural familiarity and knowledge of insurgent myths, narratives and culture are a prerequisite to accomplishing this." (p.13)

Jager's monograph also contains some eye-openers of the purely absurd variety. The following passage would be sidesplittingly funny for its deadpan lack of self-awareness if it didn't reveal that such a major shortcoming in the American military's strategic thinking was addressed only last year:

As part of the "cultural turn" within the DoD, new lessons on National Cultures in the standard Strategic Thinking course and a new series of Regional Studies courses were introduced into the curriculum in 2006-07. The aim of these courses is to teach students about the importance of cultural awareness and understanding of "how other regions, nations, and societies view themselves and others" and the effect of this awareness on policy and strategy formulations and outcome. This is a significant shift away from the traditional focus on American interest and policy in foreign areas... (p. 6)

Or this:

Every dimension of the framework must be appreciated as both a cumulative and revisionist process of not only the actual historical experience, but also memory of that history for memory often distorts history for contemporary purposes. (pp. 6-7; Emphasis definitely all mine.)

It's a shame, because Jager's principle policy proposal is insightful. Instead of lumping all of our enemies together in an "Us against them" approach that serves to magnify their power, we should be using our cultural understanding of our various adversaries to emphasize the differences among them. The anthropologist's version of divide and conquer. But it's lost amid the unquestioning cheerleading that surrounds it.

Finally, there was a point just after the invasion of Iraq that President Bush was fond of evoking occupied post-War Japan. So this passage about how we used an understanding of Japanese culture to advance the implantation of democracy there got me thinking:

Hirohito was miraculously transformed from Japan's preeminent military leader who oversaw a brutal 15-year war against Asia and the United States to an innocent Japanese victim and political symbol duped by evil Japanese militarists. The surprising and rapid transition from Japanese militarism to Japanese democracy was made not through the imposition of American democratic values and norms, but by a not-so-subtle manipulation of Japanese cultural symbols and meanings, including a rather blatant manipulation of history. (p. 8)

If only we'd framed the invasion of Iraq as an effort not to liberate the Iraqis from Saddam Hussein, but to liberate Saddam Hussein from the inner circle of evil Baathists who had used him as a puppet for the past thirty years. It would have been a not-so-subtle manipulation of Iraqi cultural sympbols and meanings, including a rather blatant manipulation of history. But it might have worked.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Iraq   

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Citizenship Soldiers

The symbolism of a Veteran's Day ceremony in Baghdad honoring American soldiers seems fitting enough. But what if the ceremony is actually to administer the Oath of Allegiance because the American soldiers in question aren't yet American citizens? That's what happened this past Sunday when Harry Chertoff administered the oath to 178 of the estimated 40,000 soldiers now serving in the military in order to win a fast-track to American citizenship.

There's something particularly moving about the idea of men and women volunteering for military service in time of war for the chance to call themselves American. It says a lot about the attraction America still holds for the world. Of course a great deal of that attraction has to do with the relative economic opportunity here compared to many of these people's countries of origin. But I don't think there are that many countries that inspire the same sort of willingness to risk life and limb in order to gain citizenship.

On the other hand, at a time when the American military is stretched thin and immigration policy has been deadlocked by a vocal contingent of xenophobes, it also says a lot about this country that we're willing to hand these guys a rifle and ship them into a war zone based on the promise of a passport if they make it out alive.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Sincerity Test

The recent meeting between President Bush and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was eagerly anticipated, since it was expected to determine whether or not Turkey would launch a cross-border incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan. As usual with such eagerly anticipated meetings, the outcome was largely anti-climactic, producing pretty much the exact same "carefully worded statements" afterwards that both sides had been issuing for the week or two leading up to the meeting.

In this case, that amounted to Erdogan demanding concrete American steps to address the PKK problem and refusing to renounce Turkey's right to defend itself against the hybrid terrorist-guerilla organization, and Bush providing his assurances that America was taking concrete steps to address the problem and firmly repeating his conviction that invading Iraq to prosecute a Global War on Terror would almost certainly drag the entire region into violent upheaval.

So it should come as no surprise that the Turkish military was somewhat underwhelmed by what the meeting actually accomplished and is adopting a wait and see attitude towards the promises Bush made, what they call a "test of sincerity":

The military leaders want to see first and for all (sic) sincerity from the Americans on intelligence sharing... The quality of the intelligence to be given to Turkey will show the sincerity of Washington, they stress. They said such instant intelligence should allow the Turkish forces to utilize the information for operational purposes...

Among other gestures that would prove Bush's sincerity, the Turkish military would like to see four or five PKK leaders (included on a wanted list shared with the US in the past) actually turned over. Now this would seem to be a problem, seeing as how Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, one of the more moderate Kurdish leaders, recently declared that he wouldn't even hand over a Kurdish cat to Turkey. Interestingly enough, though, American forces just liberated nine Iranian prisoners held in Iraq, among them Iranians who had been captured while on a diplomatic visit to Iraqi Kurdistan. In addition, Iran just re-opened its consulates in Irbil and Sulaymaniyah (where some of the prisoners had been captured).

Now the two developments might be entirely unrelated. Or, given the fact that the Kurds loudly protested the detentions when they took place and have long enjoyed fruitful relations with Iran, the moves might be part of a larger deal to defuse the PKK issue. If four or five PKK leaders just happen to turn up in Turkish hands in the next week or two, with only symbolic protests from the Iraqi Kurds, I'd wager on the latter.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   Turkey   

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Payment Due

Steve Clemons at The Wasington Note flagged this as a must read article. As usual, he's right. It's an up-close profile of one of our hired guns in the so-called Anbar Awakening. It seems to me the Sunni Sleep Walking would be a more accurate description of this strategy. We're not solving problems over there. We're papering them over to be dealt with sometime down the line. In effect, we're mortgaging them with high-risk loans, the foreign policy equivalent of the Sub-Prime Crisis.

It's the guiding metaphor for this moment in American history: Bush's fiscal irresponsibility, the extra-Constitutional measures in the name of national security, the fly-by-night alliances with shady characters (whether they be heads of state in Pakistan or tribal chiefs in Anbar). All of them serve to give the appearance of solving problems, just like "new credit instruments" gave the illusion of owning a home. Mission Accomplished. At least until the payments come due.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iraq   

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Friday, November 9, 2007

Progress Or Metastisization?

By now the consensus is that things are going better in Iraq, and that all the major casualty figures are significantly down. Call me a cynic, but when I see the Iraqi government announcing that 46,000 Iraqi refugees returned home from Syria in the same week that the Iraqi Red Crescent announces that 67,000 Iraqi have fled their homes during the month of September, it makes me wonder. Even if both reports are correct, it still leaves a net outflow of refugees and suggests that the violence, like so many Iraqis, is just being internally displaced.

Most of the reassuring casualty reports I've seen have been sourced to the Iraqi government or the American military. Both have a vested interest in showing progress. Even assuming civilian sectarian killings are down, if you take a glance at the weekly summaries of recent incidents over at Iraq Body Count, you'll notice how many Iraqi police (read: militia members) are being targetted.

To my mind, taken together all this certainly reflects a significant change in what's going on over there. But I'm not so sure that's progress.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Media Coverage   

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Monday, November 5, 2007

Shit Or Get Off The Pot

In another must read out of the Small Wars Journal blog, Adam Cobb spells out the options for America in Iraq:

Bottom-line: we have to accept the current situation and be realistic about fixing it or we cut our losses and get out.

By that he means that anything short of a ten-to-twenty year guaranteed commitment, as in "We're not going anywhere 'til this thing's settled", will amount to incrementalism and allow everyone who doesn't feel like fighting against us now to wait us out. On the other hand, he argues that the consequences of our leaving immediately, while potentially bloody, will in all likelihood be self-correcting.

The worst possible option, though, is to keep ante-ing up for one year intervals and postponing a final reckoning, something the current administration has been all too willing to do, and something that plans for gradual withdrawal might become should we get drawn back in while we're busy getting out.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Monday, November 5, 2007

Iraq Exodus, PKK Edition

Alexander Cockburn reports that the PKK is moving some of its fighters across the border into Iran due to the threat of a Turkish incursion. It's apparently a tactic the PKK have used in the past, taking advantage of the Kurd diaspora across four nations (Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria) to get off the anvil before the hammer strikes.

According to the brother of jailed PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, the move also represents an escalation of the PKK's "war against Iran". If true, the entire problem posed by the PKK will have been displaced from a friendly but recalcitrant neighborhood to an extremely hostile one. The resulting complications of transposing Iran for Turkey in the current standoff are obvious, especially in light of Sy Hersh's report that the Cheney gang is waiting for an Iranian incident to serve as an excuse for military strikes against Iran.

If it also turns out that facilitating the exodus (ie. "exporting" a listed terrorist organization) was part of the American response to Turkish pressure, the fallout -- on both a regional and global level -- would be disastrous.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Sunday, November 4, 2007

Gallows Humor

If history serves up one big belly laugh at George W. Bush's expense, the punchline will most certainly come via Vladimir Putin. Because what other foreign leader better exemplifies President Bush's rapid evolution from foreign policy buffoon to foreign policy bungler to foreign policy nightmare? With Russia as prickly as a Joshua Tree Cholla, this hardly strikes me as an opportune time to pull backroom deals worthy of JR Ewing:

Guided by American legal advisers, the Iraqi government has canceled a controversial development contract with the Russian company Lukoil for a vast oil field in Iraq’s southern desert, freeing it up for potential international investment in the future...

The contract, which had been signed and later canceled by the Saddam Hussein government, had been in legal limbo since the American invasion. But the Kremlin remained hopeful it could be salvaged until this September, when Mr. Shahristani traveled to Moscow to inform officials there that the decision to cancel it was final, he said.

The Russian government, newly emboldened in international affairs by its expanding oil wealth, is still backing Lukoil’s claim and protesting what it considers selective enforcement of contracts in Iraq.

As for that new round of Security Council sanctions on Iran, well, don't hold your breath.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Russia   

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Friday, November 2, 2007

Options On The Table

You've got to hand it to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Not only does he have the coolest name of any current head of state that I know of, he's also managed to navigate the PKK crisis pretty damn skillfully. Between Turkish public opinion calling for all out war, the military revving their engines at the border, the Kurdistan Regional Government basically thumbing their noses at him, and the American military commander for the region announcing as recently as last week that he'd do "absolutely nothing" to intervene, you'd have thought an incursion was all but inevitable.

But while letting the sabres rattle, Erdogan never stopped calling attention to the limits of what a military response could accomplish. It looks like he's going to get what he needed using the threat of war -- or a "cross-border operation" as he prefers to call it -- without actually having to resort to one. Hopefully someone in Washington is paying attention.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Wednesday, October 31, 2007


It took six months, 100,000 troops massed on the border, and the threat of an invasion, but Turkey has finally started getting some cooperation on the PKK question, both from the US and the Iraqi Kurds:

"We have given them more and more intelligence as a result of the recent concerns," said Defense Department Press Secretary Geoff Morrell...

He did not say specifically when the increase started or how the intelligence was being gathered.

But the military in the last week or so has sent manned U-2 spy planes to the border region used by rebels, said a second defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about it on the record.

The official also said that the U.S. military saw a battalion of several hundred Peshmerga - the militia of the Kurdish Iraqi regional authorities - moving toward the border over the weekend. That could represent a notable change from last week when the top U.S. military commander in the area said he was not aware of any Kurdish attempts to rein in the PKK.

The next major benchmark comes on November 5, when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in Washington to meet with President Bush. The outcome of that meeting should determine whether and how aggressively Turkey will pursue economic sanctions against the Kurdish north. But between the Turkish military's announcement that no invasion would take place before the meeting and the onset of winter in the Qandil mountains, it looks less and less likely that Turkey will resort to force to resolve the issue.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Iraq Exodus

More really needs to be made of the fact that despite repeated promises to the contrary, the United States has done absolutely nothing to address the refugee crisis resulting from the Iraq War. Having promised to resettle up to 25,000 refugees in 2007, we've managed to take in only 1,608. In the same period of time, Sweden has received 12,000.

By contrast, since the start of the war, Syria has accepted 1.2 million refugees, and Jordan 750,000, numbers that represent 10% and 24% respectively of their entire populations. Adjusted for scale, that would be the equivalent of America receiving between 30 and 75 million refugees.

War advocates have used the Vietnam boat lifts as a comparison for what might happen should the US leave Iraq. But the Iraq exodus has long since begun. It's pretty shameful that we've yet to provide asylum for those willing to come Stateside, or assistance for those unable to. But at the very least, we should keep our word about the meager gestures we've promised to make.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Katrina, Baghdad Edition

Just when you thought you couldn't possibly be flummoxed by news out of Iraq, along comes this:

The largest dam in Iraq is in danger of an imminent collapse that could unleash a huge wave of water, possibly drowning 500,000 people, new assessments by the US Army Corps of Engineers show.

A collapse would put Mosul under 20 metres [67 feet] of water and parts of Baghdad under 4.5 metres [15 feet], according to Abdulkhalik Thanoon Ayoub, the dam manager.

Needless to say, an American reconstruction project to temporarily shore up the dam's foundations was plagued by mismanagement, sloppy work standards, and "indications of potential fraud", according to a report from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. There's also significant disagreement between Iraqi and American officials about how to solve the problem.

I'm sure that Iraqis take comfort in knowing that, having already experienced American-style democracy, they might soon get the opportunity to experience American-style disaster relief. Yikes.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Not Enough

I'm sorry, but if this is the best the opposition to the Iraq War can manage, this war is a long way from being over. I'm increasingly convinced that protest marches are outdated as a means of achieving any sort of meaningful change. Be that as it may, any protest that can't simultaneous immobilize several major cities across the country does more harm than good to a cause of this magnitude. In an age of flash mobs and viral videos, certainly some creative mind out there can come up with something more potent than "What do we want? Peace. When do we want it? Now."

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Make That Very Not Warm To The Idea

A quick followup to yesterday's post regarding the possible impact of Turkish economic sanctions on Iraqi Kurdistan. According to Today's Zaman, the Turkish Security Council has already narrowed down an eventual embargo to the energy and food sectors. There's also this passage, regarding the possible closing of the Habur border crossing and the diversion of Turkish commercial traffic to the Nusaybin border crossing with Syria:

Turkey is aware of the fact that the US is currently sending 70 percent of the logistic needs of its troops in Iraq through the Habur border crossing and will not be warm to the idea of accessing Iraq via Syria, particularly considering the current state of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Full closure of Habur would render the US unable to provide logistical supplies to its troops in Iraq. For this reason, such an action may spark a crisis between Turkey and the US. Accordingly, Turkey is not planning to fully close down the crossing and is trying to decide on which export items will be sanctioned. Turkey will not block passage of medicine and medical products and may opt for allowing the provision of logistical supplies to US troops in Iraq.

Make no mistake about it, the Turkish-PKK crisis is piping hot and pesky. But there's a lot of arm-twisting and deal-making left to be done before it goes ballistic.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Relative To What?

I keep seeing quotes like this one from a NY Times article describing how Turkey rejected an Iraqi delegation's proposals at their latest round of meetings designed to head off a Turkish incursion:

The Turkish Parliament has approved the use of troops to follow the fighters into Iraq if necessary, and the United States and Iraq have been trying at all costs to avert a conflict in the region, which is one of the few relatively peaceful areas of Iraq.

Trouble is, if you're Turkey, there's already a conflict in the region, and the area is pretty violent relative to other parts of Turkey.

As for the negotiations, it's pretty obvious why Turkey rejected the Iraqi proposal to position American troops along the border out of hand. An American presence probably wouldn't be able to prevent the PKK from infiltrating the border, and the last thing Turkey wants is to run into a bunch of American units -- who are currently positioned out of harm's way -- if they eventually do launch an attack.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Baghdad Embassy Fiasco, Staffing Edition

Well, it looks like the Iraq War is going to force America to reinstate the draft after all, but not to fill out the ranks of the fighting forces. We've got the Reserves and the National Guard to do that. No, it's the diplomatic corps that's a little thin in Baghdad, and so far the call for volunteers hasn't exactly resulted in a stampede of applicants. So starting Nov. 12, the State Dept. will be identifying a pool of 300 "prime candidates" to fill the 40-50 vacancies expected in Baghdad next year. If after ten days not enough people out of the initial pool put their names on the dotted line, the Dept will basically fill the remaining spots by assignment. Anyone refusing the order to go will face dismissal:

The move to directed assignments is rare but not unprecedented.

In 1969, an entire class of entry-level diplomats was sent to Vietnam, and on a smaller scale, diplomats were required to work at various embassies in West Africa in the 1970s and 1980s.

More than 1,200 of the department's 11,500 Foreign Service officers have served in Iraq since 2003, but the generous incentives have not persuaded enough diplomats to volunteer for duty in Baghdad or with the State Department's provincial reconstruction teams.

Those ordered to Baghdad will still receive the incentives such as hardship pay and choice of future assignments offered to volunteers. There's been no response yet from the union representing career diplomats, but it has expressed concern about the possibility of this kind of posting in the past.

I imagine that most of the posts to be filled are entry- to mid-level, so should the move result in a hemmorhage of qualified personnel, the damage done to the American diplomatic corps will be felt in the longterm, when these people would have graduated to higher-level positions. Just another way the Bush presidency has deferred payments for its disastrous policies to America's future generations.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Friday, October 26, 2007

South Of The Border

The Turkish military is massing along the Iraqi border and reports of limited cross-border operations are already trickling out. But I'm still doubtful the Turks will mount a large scale military incursion. Why? Because given the choice, they'd much rather have the Kurds deal with the PKK than do it themselves. And while the threat of military action has certainly gotten everyone's attention, economic sanctions -- which Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan hinted at this week -- could prove to be much more effective to making that happen:

Many analysts feel that such an embargo would cause serious problems for Iraq’s relatively stable north, which is highly dependent on Turkish investment as the driving force of its economy. From food to energy, all vital supplies are obtained from Turkey, and Turkish contractors are restructuring the north by constructing roads, hospitals, residential buildings, apartments and infrastructure. Turkey’s exports to Iraq have surpassed $3 billion, and the Habur border gate on the trade route between Iraq and Turkey has become the lifeline of the region’s trade, despite the decrease in the number of trucks passing through the gate to 700 from 3,000 after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Analysts opine that closing Habur would alone cause great losses in profits to the Barzani government in northern Iraq, which earns a healthy revenue from traffic through the gate.

To give an idea of the kind of pressure Ankara can exert, simply closing the Habur border crossing for a week in September cost the Kurdish region $1 million per day in economic losses (figures on p. 20 here). The kinds of sanctions being floated now -- recalling Turkish nationals, blockading electricity sales -- would dwarf those figures. And while economic sanctions would take their toll on the Turkish companies doing business in northern Iraq as well, the same would be true of a miltary incursion.

Needless to say, Turkey's aggressive military posturing has helped them make the PKK a priority south of the border. But I'd be surprised to see them resort to a military operation before giving economic pressure a chance to achieve results.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Price Is Right

So, how do you smooth things over when you've gone and ruffled a good friend's feathers? Well, if you're Tom Lantos and the friend in question is Turkey, you sponsor a bill to give them three decommissioned guided missile frigates worth a total of $375 million free of charge, as well as a fourth one at a $100 million dollar discount. That's right, $500 million worth of naval hardware for the bargain price of $28 million.

It's not the first time we've done it, and part of the reasoning behind the gift is that it encourages Turkey to order the American-made attack helicopters that supplement the frigates. But still, doesn't something about the timing just give you the feeling we really don't want Turkey going into northern Iraq?

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Someone's Bombing, Lord?

I know I've been posting a lot on Turkey and the PKK the past few weeks. But despite my best intentions to stay away from this story, I'm by nature drawn to hotspots. And besides, how could I pass on this?

According to an official familiar with the conversation, Mr Bush assured the Turkish President that the US was seriously looking into options beyond diplomacy to stop the attacks coming from Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.

"It's not 'Kumbaya' time any more - just talking about trilateral talks is not going to be enough," the official said.

"Something has to be done."

While the use of US soldiers on the ground to root out the PKK would be the last resort, the US would be willing to launch air strikes on PKK targets, the official said, and has discussed the use of cruise missiles.

It's becoming intuitively clear that the US is going to have to actually do something and get its hands dirty in order to keep this simmering crisis from boiling over. I'd assumed it would be some sort of symbolic strike. But cruise missiles and bombing raids would probably do the trick, too. On the Turkish side of the border, anyway. I don't think it will play too well in Irbil.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Slow Boil

According to Gareth Porter, the PKK attack on a Turkish base over the weekend was part of a calculated and clever plan to force Turkey to the negotiating table. Coming just days after the Turkish parliament approved a military intervention, the raid as well as the apparently pre-meditated decision to take prisoners were designed to push Turkey to the brink of an incursion in order to mobilize a subsequent diplomatic backlash against the use of force.

If it's true, it would seem to have worked for the time being. I'm not sure just what concessions the PKK can realistically hope to extract, whether directly or through intermediaries. But I've become increasingly convinced that Turkey will make quite a bit of noise about this -- including some border shelling -- before eventually hammering out some sort of cooperative agreement with the Iraqi central government, the Kurdistan Regional Government, and the US. But the threat of an attack can't be sustained for very long without some sort of results, otherwise it loses its credibility. That, plus the fact that winter conditions are quickly setting in on the border, make time of the essence.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Framing The Debate

A reader took me to task in the Comments for suggesting that there's some doubt as to whether or not civilian and military casualties have decreased in Iraq. Which made me confront the fact that I'd read the recent casualty reports (which like this AP dispatch have consistently documented fewer deaths) with skepticism, and confront the possibility that I've begun to filter information on the war through a failure-tinted lens.

Now as Anthony Cordesman points out in the AP story, judging the war's progress by casualty figures is reductionist. Internal and external displacement, civil cohesiveness, infrastructure, the rule of law, Sunni-Shiite power-sharing, the 'Kurdish exception' -- all of these problems need to be solved before the experiment in statehood that we call the Iraq War can be judged a success. Add to that the multitiude of semi-autonomous militias, not to mention the enormous number of detainees (somewhere near 50,000, based on this and this), that will eventually have to be successfully reintegrated into Iraqi civil society and it's clear that there's still quite a ways to go before Iraq resembles anything close to a truly functioning state. And after we've covered all that ground, we'll still only be at the beginning of finding out if the whole gamble was worth it, because only then will we know just what role this new Iraq will play on the strategic chessboard of the Middle East.

Still, I think it's a healthy exercise for opponents of the war to ask ourselves whether, as the right has claimed, we've become attached to the idea of failure. Whether we've become fixated on the bad news of the past four years to the point that we can't see any positive developments. And whether we run the risk of getting seriously outflanked by the Republican 'roid ragers in 2008 should the war succeed.

The answer, I think, is fairly obvious from the above list of problems yet to be solved in Iraq. We're a long ways from being out of the woods. But the value of such an exercise is that it illustrates to what extent we've been guilty of political and analytic laziness. In focusing so much on the war's many operational failures, we've given the right an opening to define success operationally. Reducing violence is a pre-requisite to success, not a result of it. If the casualty figures hold, we will still only find ourselves where the Bush administration expected -- even claimed -- to be back in June of 2003: Confronting the challenges of a stabilized post-Saddam Iraq, which remain many and complex.

And what if, five years from now, Iraq is a stable state with an intricate fabric of partnerships, alliances and influences, none of which are openly hostile to American interests? Will it have been worth it? I think the war's opponents (and the Democratic Presidential candidates) had better come up with an answer to that question, because it will be asked come 2008. And as unlikely as the prospect has seemed for the past four years, the operational data now emerging just might support wishful thinking.

My answer is a categorical no. The status quo in March 2003 did not justify the loss of life, resources, influence, goodwill, and strategic standing that we've suffered as a result of the invasion and its aftermath. It's time to start re-framing the debate based on those larger issues. Because those are the ones that we'll still face long after the last flag-draped coffin is lowered into the ground.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Monday, October 22, 2007

On The Down Low

I mentioned earlier, in relation to the recent PKK attack on Turkish forces that left twelve Turkish soldiers dead and eight missing, that it's the captured soldiers that are more likely to have an inflammatory impact on that situation. So I wasn't at all surprised to note that in the English-language Turkish press, as well as in the Turkish military press briefings, the emphasis has been on the casualties. The only mention I found of the missing soldiers was this paragraph from Today's Zaman:

An intelligence source speaking to Today’s Zaman on condition of anonymity said 10 to 12 soldiers were revealed to have been missing in a headcount after the attack. The source added it was not clear whether they ran away in panic or had been kidnapped.

Even after this deadly attack, I still get the impression that Turkey is ready and willing to exhaust all the possible diplomatic avenues to avoid engaging in a cross-border operation, mainly because it's in no one's interests, least of all their own, to send Turkish forces into northern Iraq. My observation that the captured soldiers turning up in Kurdish hands would increase the odds of such an operation (a reflection that Andrew Sullivan described as "obvious" -- ouch!) was mainly in reference to previous posts to this effect.

I also mentioned that America urgently needs to make this an American issue, even at the risk of getting our hands dirty and stepping on some (Kurdish) toes. It might very well be that no one can actually root out the PKK from their mountain bases in northern Iraq -- not the Kurds, not the Turks, and not us. But if we don't offer some concrete military assistance to at least give the appearance that we're trying to do that, it's hard to imagine the Turks' sitting on their hands for much longer.

Update: Click "Publish", find story. The Turkish military has just confirmed that the 8 soldiers are missing. It also seems that a PKK news outlet has published their names. Better keep those raincoats handy.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Monday, October 22, 2007

What's Good For The Goose

The point Matthew Yglesias is making here takes on added significance in light of recent suggestions that the pretext for an eventual attack on Iran might end up being a fabricated or provoked "hot incident" involving US and Iranian forces on the Iraq-Iran border. Having expressed his hope for a diplomatic resolution to the PKK problem, Yglesias drops this nugget:

That said, I do wonder what the apostles of "toughness" and willpower on the right will say about this. Don't they think that the Turks must cross the border in force and show the Kurds what's what? Won't weakness only invite further aggression?

Not according to Condoleeza Rice, who told Turkish Prime Minister Reccep Tayyip Erdogan that "we do not believe unilateral cross-border operations are the best way to address this issue."

There are obvious differences between the PKK, which is not an official organ of the Kurdistan Regional Government, and Iran's Revolutionary Guards (although by some accounts the latter do operate with a certain autonomy vis a vis the Iranian government). Even so, it will be useful to recall our response to Turkey's anger and frustration should such an event take place.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   Turkey   

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Raw Sewage Alert

If the border between Turkey and Iraq can best be described as a heap of explosives soaked with kerosene, the kind of attack that just took place there might turn out to be the spark that sets it all off. Dead soldiers are hard enough to manage in terms of public opinion, especially twelve of them at once. Captured soldiers, though, tend to push things over the brink and provoke reprisals. If the eight missing Turkish troops turn up in Kurdish hands -- or worse yet, mistreated in Kurdish hands -- the odds of a Turkish incursion (and the urgency of finding an American response to the PKK's campaign of provocation) will rise dramatically.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Tough Guy

In the mad rush among American and Iraqi leaders to placate Turkey in the aftermath of its parliamentary approval for an incursion into Iraq, the one party who had yet to be heard from was Massoud Barzani, President of the Kurdish Regional Government and something of a hothead and straight shooter. You'll recall Barzani's the guy who last April threatened to "interfere" in Turkish cities if Turkey interfered in the Kirkuk referendum.

Well, Barzani broke his silence today. And as we used to say in Brooklyn, dem's fightin' words:

"We frankly say to all parties that if the region or the Kurdistan experiment come under attack under any pretext, we will completely be ready to defend our democratic experiment, our people's dignity and the sanctity of our homeland," Kurdish regional President Massoud al-Barzani said in a statement...

Iraq's Kurdistan is not "responsible for the war between the Turkish government and the PKK," al-Barzani said, underlining that the Kurdish regional government "did not support violence and bloodletting and we are not willing to be dragged into this war."

Barzani isn't alone in discouraging a Turkish incursion. He's just the only one who didn't bother phrasing it politely.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

After The Surge

I've given up following whether the Surge has actually decreased casualties, civilian and military, in Iraq. Because I've honestly lost track of who's pedaling which numbers and how they came up with them. Which essentially means Mission Accomplished for Gen. Petraeus, because if someone who follows these things relatively closely -- as I do -- can't keep up anymore, the confusion must be pretty widespread. And in this case, confusion favors the status quo.

Be that as it may, here's where the rubber really hits the road on the Surge:

...An Army spokesman confirmed Wednesday that the 3rd BCT, which is re-deploying to Fort Hood in December after 15 months in theater, will not be replaced. Instead, soldiers from the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team working in neighboring Salahuddin province will expand their area of operations into Diyala province...

The decision not to replace 3rd BCT, 1st Cavalry Division, signals the beginning of a downsizing in the surge of five additional brigades that began pouring into Iraq in the spring.

It's only logical that the Surge should have had an immediate impact on levels of violence in Iraq, and it's even possible that it actually did. That still doesn't prove that it was a sound strategy. The final judgment will depend on whether the levels of violence remain low now that the surged troops are drawing down.

So don't be surprised to see Petraeus working the refs over the next few months in an effort to inluence American public opinion. Because contrary to what some people might think, that (and not downtown Baghdad) is now the war's center of gravity.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Media Coverage   

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Horn + Horn = Dilemma

Gareth Jenkins is the man to read when it comes to Turkey and the PKK. This article over at The Jamestown Foundation is no exception. Why would a Turkish incursion today be less successful than the already costly incursions of the 1990's? Because ten years ago the Peshmergas fought alongside the Turks, cutting off the PKK's lines of retreat in the face of the Turkish advance, whereas today they're mobilizing to fight alongside the PKK. What will a Turkish incursion look like if the army does eventually get the order to roll out? Ground attacks on the PKK forward bases along the Turkish border, air strikes followed by airborne special forces infiltrations on the main bases in Iraq's Qandril Mountains. How likely is a Turkish incursion? Hard to tell, but Jenkins suggests that a lot depends on the US giving a clear signal of just how they would respond. Turkey is convinced American forces will do nothing; the Kurds are convinced they'll intervene after the first engagement between Peshmerga and Turkish ground troops. They can't both be right.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Squeaky Wheel

Turkey's sabre-rattling campaign about a cross-border incursion into Iraq has already achieved one of its objectives. Namely, a sense of urgency among the Iraqi leadership. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called his Turkish counterpart today to reaffirm his commitment to eradicating the PKK presence in Iraq and to ask for "another chance". Meanwhile, Iraqi Vice-President Tareq al-Hashemi arrived in Ankara yesterday for what Today's Zaman called a "hastily arranged visit".

Significantly, though, comments made by Jalal Talabani, Iraq's (Kurdish) President, were somewhat more tepid:

"We consider the activities of the PKK against the interests of the Kurdish people and against the interests of Turkey. We have asked the PKK to stop fighting and end military activity," Talabani said during a visit to Paris.

Of course, getting the PKK to end their military activity will have to go through the Kurds, and will probably require more than just asking them politely (although the PKK did declare a unilateral ceasefire in the past). But in the meantime, taking the Turks seriously is a start.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Saving Face

Based on everything I've read in the (anglophone) Turkish press, I think the chances of a full-scale Turkish military operation in Iraqi Kurdistan are actually pretty slim. Yes, the authorization for an incursion has been put before the Turkish Parliament, and yes it will almost certainly be approved. This gives Prime Minister Erdogan a year's worth of serious leverage to really get people's attention in Washington, Baghdad and Irbil. Think of it as the Turkish equivalent of the Iraq War Authorization Act, only given to a head of state who has demonstrated an appreciation for the limits of military force.

Aside from an occasional loud boom for Turkish domestic consumption, if there is any military operation it will probably come in the form of an under the radar infiltration of special forces, augmenting the hot pursuit incursions and artillery shelling of PKK positions that's been taking place -- and largely ignored by everyone involved -- for months now.

The reality is that a Turkish invasion risks turning an irritating situation into a regional crisis that will almost certainly degrade Turkey's strategic position, with little hope of actually solving the PKK problem. On the other hand, a low-level special forces operation allows everyone to walk away with a moral victory: Turkey by claiming they're addressing the problem, the US by claiming they've avoided the worst, and the Kurds by claiming that nothing's happening.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Spread Thin

In case you haven't seen it yet, this WaPo op-ed by twelve former Army captains who served "in Baghdad and beyond" goes a little bit against the grain of the Petraeus party line:

Against this backdrop, the U.S. military has been trying in vain to hold the country together. Even with "the surge," we simply do not have enough soldiers and marines to meet the professed goals of clearing areas from insurgent control, holding them securely and building sustainable institutions. Though temporary reinforcing operations in places like Fallujah, An Najaf, Tal Afar, and now Baghdad may brief well on PowerPoint presentations, in practice they just push insurgents to another spot on the map and often strengthen the insurgents' cause by harassing locals to a point of swayed allegiances. Millions of Iraqis correctly recognize these actions for what they are and vote with their feet -- moving within Iraq or leaving the country entirely. Still, our colonels and generals keep holding on to flawed concepts.

America's choice, as they see it? Institute a military draft to draw up the troops needed to actually accomplish the mission, or get out now. Of course, instituting a draft would be political suicide, which is far less palatable (to politicians) than sending soldiers off to die in an ill-conceived war. But by bringing it to a vote, it would force those who argue the importance of continuing the Iraq War to put their money where their mouth is. Charlie Rangel tried this as a stunt a few years back, but the timing was a little early. It would pack a lot more punch now. Support the troops: they need some backup.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Ring The Alarm

Since being appointed Army chief of staff, Gen. William Casey has gone out of his way to sound the alarm on the toll six years of war have taken on the Army. This is from the keynote speech he gave at the Army's Annual Meeting, in which he foresaw a future of "persistent conflict":

"Today's Army is out-of-balance," said Gen. Casey. "The current demand on our forces exceeds the sustainable supply. We are consumed with meeting the demands of the current fight and unable to provide ready forces as rapidly as we would like for other contingencies. Overall, we are consuming our readiness as fast as we are building it."

In addition to the accelerated plans already in place to increase the standing force, Casey identified the changing role of the Reserves as critical to getting the Army back in balance:

"They are no longer a strategic reserve mobilized only in national emergencies," he said. "They are now an operational reserve, deployed on a cyclical basis to allow us to sustain extended operations. Operationalizing the Reserve Components will require national and state consensus as well as continued commitment from employers, Soldiers and Families. It will require changes to the way we train and equip, resource and mobilize, and also administrative policies. We owe it to them to make this transition rapidly."

This is worth noting, because what he's talking about is institutionalizing what was initially a stopgap measure. And it's a process that is already underway. Over the past four years, the Reserves have effectively functioned as a draft pool because, let's face it, anyone who signed up previous to 9/11 did not realistically expect to see active duty. Casey's suggesting we transform their role into a sort of rotating replacement corps, giving breathers wherever the line is stretched thinnest. Not, mind you, because of any logistical advantage that might offer, but because we simply don't have the capacity to prosecute the War in Iraq -- let alone "other contingencies" -- otherwise.

It's true you go to war with the Army you have, as Donald Rumsfeld famously noted. But you don't start wars unless you have the Army you need. Now we're playing catch-up, expanding the army in both explicit and implicit ways, all for a war that remains highly contested and so far largely inconclusive. One that even the Army chief of staff believes will do nothing to prevent decades of persistent conflict. Discouraging, to say the least.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Iraq   

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Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Top Down Reconciliation

With all the emphasis on political reconciliation as a litmus test of progress in Iraq, it's surprising that the pact reached this weekend by Moqtada al-Sadr and Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, heads of the rival Mahdi Army and Badr Brigades, has largely flown under the radar in the American press. You'll recall that these are the two militias whose battle for control of Shiite Iraq has accounted for the greater part of the intra-sectarian violence that country has experienced in the past four years. So the fact that they've agreed to a truce and are planning to cooperate on guaranteeing security seems like a major development, and much better news from a structural perspective than the drop in casualty numbers registered last month.

The deal is inherently unstable due to the litany of policy and personal disputes between the two men and their followers. But as the article does a good job of explaining, there are a lot of circumstantial factors that make it a win-win scenario for both of them. Not least of which was the need to forcefully reject the Senate's recent non-binding resolution endorsing a partition for Iraq's ethno-sectarian regions.

Oddly enough, I found myself musing just yesterday that it seemed as if Moqtada al-Sadr's long run of resurrecting himself just when it looked like you could count him out had finally come to an end. I guess not. He's found a way to buy himself a bit more time, admittedly as the junior partner in an unstable coalition. But that seems to be his specialty.

Meanwhile, Moqtada's fate seems to be curiously bound to President Bush's, for better and for worse. His latest move will undoubtedly buy more time for the Bush-Petraeus plan, while at the same time strengthening Iran's hand in Iraqi affairs. Not necessarily a good combination, that. But that's the dilemma of Bush's quagmire: We can't leave Iraq until good things happen. But the good things we need to happen are not necessarily good for our post-Iraq interests.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, October 4, 2007

Is Blackwater Untouchable?

There's been a lot of wringing of hands lately with regard to military contractors in Iraq, particularly how to rein in what increasingly amounts to a private army, answerable to no one, running amok with high calibre weaponry. Sprinkled throughout news coverage of the most recent Blackwater shooting spree in Baghdad, and peppered throughout the Congressional testimony of Blackwater CEO Erik Prince, was the gathering realization that as serious a problem as these rogue contractors are, they're somehow immune from being brought to justice because of their odd hybrid status. Not quite military, because they're civilian contractors, and not quite civilians because they're military contractors, they exist in a legal limbo, able to tear off rounds of automatic weapons fire with seeming impunity.

Quite a dangerous conundrum, that. Except for the fact that it's just not true. As Marc Lindemann makes clear in an article for Parameters, the Army War College's quarterly, the US military code has a long history of extending military law to contractors, the determining factors being whether or not they were serving with or accompanying the American military in time of war. And while the judiciary has repeatedly narrowed the military's jurisdiction over civilians, Congress has consistently responded with bills designed to respond to the courts' concerns.

Indeed, as recently as the defense authorization act of 2007, Congress deliberately plugged loopholes in previous enforcement measures by adding language to expand the Code's jurisdiction over civilians to include "contingency operations" instead of only "in time of declared war". The Iraq mission is, by statutory definition, a contingency operation:

Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the change’s architects, has stated that this modification of the UCMJ would “give military commanders a more fair and efficient means of discipline on the battlefield” by placing “civilian contractors accompanying the armed forces in the field under court-martial jurisdiction during contingency operations as well as in times of declared war.”

The expansion of the UCMJ’s jurisdiction now provides a means of regulating contractor behavior, whatever the contracting company’s mission is in the combat zone. In doing so, the 2007 legislation has fundamentally changed the military-civilian relationship in stability operations.

That hardly strikes me as legal limbo. And while some of the more egregious Blackwater incidents occurred before the new language was put into effect, there was already an existing measure, the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, designed to cover civilian military contractors:

Under MEJA, DOD contractors “employed by or accompanying the Armed Forces” could be brought back to the United States and tried in federal court for any crime that would be a felony under US law. MEJA entrusted the US Department of Justice with the prosecution of these crimes. Military and civilian lawyers alike heralded the 2000 law as a means of regulating contractors’ actions in a theater of operations.

Lindemann blames the evidentiary difficulties of prosecuting a crime committed abroad to explain US Attorneys' reluctance to bring charges, even in cases of blatant criminal behavior like Abu Ghraib. In fact, it was this reluctance on the part of prosecutors that led Congress to return the enforcement of contractor discipline to the military.

In all fairness, Lindemann makes it clear that there are some wrinkles to be ironed out. Parts of the UCMJ would have to be revised to "de-criminalize" certain behavior (misconduct while in captivity, for instance) for civilian contractors. But on the big picture items, like murder and reckless use of deadly force, the laws are already there on the books. It's just a question of applying them.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, October 4, 2007

Bitter Pills

Because the American military cannot replace the 190,000 firearms that have already gone missing in Iraq quickly enough, Baghdad is turning to China to arm its police force, to the tune of $100 million. Granted, it's a drop in the bucket compared to the $1.6 billion arms deal we just signed with the Iraqis. But as the article notes, the Iraqi police force is a pivotal component of any American exit strategy. And we still haven't really solved the problem of how to arm them.

Meanwhile, to add irony to injury, among the four oil development deals that the Kurds -- to the annoyance of Baghdad -- concluded today was one with the privately held French company, Perenco. L'horreur, l'horreur.

Posted by Judah in:  China   Iraq   

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Monday, October 1, 2007

More Manwaring

No monograph from the Army War College (ie. the guys who have really, really, really studied the subject) would be complete without making mention, at least implicitly, of just how ill-conceived the Bush administration's Iraq adventure really was. This one comes in the form of a passage emphasizing the importance of identifying precise strategic goals before initiating any hostilities, something known as "end-state planning":

...The end-state planning argument concludes that if the United Nations or the United States or any other international player is going to succeed in future conflicts, civil and military forces must be structured and employed in ways that respond to the dynamic political, economic, social, as well as military variables at work in the stability-peace paradigm. And, as logic and experience demand, the interagency community must base its decisions on a clear, mutually agreed definition of what ultimate success looks like—that is, share a vision of strategic clarity.

Attempts to achieve political and strategic objectives cannot be based on the ad hoc use of national and international instruments of power. Without organizations that can establish, enforce, and continually define a holistic plan and generate consistent national and international support, authority is fragmented and ineffective in resolving the myriad problems endemic to survival in contemporary conflict—and thus, operations can become increasingly incoherent. Requiring a high level of planning and coordination is not a matter of putting the cart before the horse. It is a matter of knowing where the horse is going and precisely how it is going to get there. Decisionmakers, policymakers, and planners should never lose sight of that bigger unity of effort picture. (pp.45-46)

Even now, four years down the road, in all the discussion about the Iraq War, that's still something I don't see much of: Knowing where the horse is going and precisely how it is going to get there.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Friday, September 28, 2007

Deja Vu All Over Again

The question, it seems to me, is, How many more times do we need to read this headline before we win? Or alternatively, How many more second-in-commands does Al Qaeda Iraq have?

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Iraq   

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Friday, September 28, 2007

Missing In Action

Add 190,000 firearms to the list of "Stuff We've Sent To Iraq That's Unaccounted For", right there under the 360 tons of cash we managed to lose track of:

The command said 185,000 Russian-designed AK-47 rifles, 170,000 pistols, 215,000 sets of body armor, and 140,000 helmets had been issued to Iraq troops by September 2005, according to the July GAO report.

But due to incomplete record-keeping, the command couldn't be certain if the Iraqis received 110,000 of the rifles, or 80,000 of the pistols. More than half of the body armor and helmets couldn't be tracked.

According to Turkey, some of these weapons have ended up in PKK hands, and the FBI is investigating whether former Blackwater employees were involved in diverting them onto the black market.

Of course, given what we know about how sectarian militias have infiltrated the Iraqi Army, I'm not sure it would have made such a difference had the weapons made it to their destination.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

All Sound, No Bite

Kevin Drum makes a good point about the Democrats' lack of a compelling, sound-biteable argument that can crystallize waffle-y opposition to the Iraq War into the urgent, unequivocal demand to withdraw our troops necessary to actually end the war. Given the doomsday scenarios tossed around by the war's advocates should we leave (Iraq bathed in blood, the Middle East in flames, and planeloads of al-Qaeda kamikazes headed Stateside), "...the surge isn't working and there's been no political progress..." does sound a bit feeble:

...Instead of merely claiming that we're not doing any good in Iraq, we need to make persuasive arguments that we're actively doing harm. There are plenty to choose from:

  • A significant chunk of the insurgency is motivated by opposition to the American occupation. Our presence is actively inflaming the violence, not reducing it.
  • The Maliki government will never make any political compromises as long as they know we're around to prop them up. Leaving is the only way to force them into action.
  • We're arming both sides in a civil war. The longer we stay, the worse the eventual bloodbath will be.
  • Our presence in Iraq is al-Qaeda's greatest recruiting tool. They're going to keep getting stronger until we leave.
  • The real disaster is in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We desperately need to more troops into that theater.

All of these are valid, but I'm afraid they're not enough. I'd wager that a significant percentage of Americans couldn't even identify Nouri al-Maliki, would be hard-pressed to identify two sides to the civil war (to say nothing of the four or five that are actually fighting), and believe that Osama Bin Laden is operating out of one of Saddam Hussein's old palaces. (Okay, maybe not that last one, but you get the point.)

There are a lot of reasons to oppose the war -- its cost in blood and money, the fact that it's accomplishing nothing positive and many things negative, and the sad fact that whether we stay ten more months or ten more years, the country will in all likelihood implode the moment we do leave.

But the most compelling reason to oppose the war is that it is weakening America:

  • by squandering our military capacity;
  • by strengthening our enemies;
  • by distracting us from other, more serious threats;
  • by diminishing our standing in the world. 

It's an argument that has the advantage of being not only compelling and simple, but also of being true. And if Democrats can convince the waffling middle that Kevin refers to of its truth, they can become the national security party by ending the War.

George Bush wants to weaken America. John McCain thinks securing Baghdad is more important than securing Washington. Mitt Romney thinks the US military is disposable.

Say it often enough and people will realize it's true. 

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Lowering The Heat

The announcement of an agreement between Turkey and Iraq allowing Turkey to conduct cross-border "hot pursuit" raids against the PKK with Iraqi approval is good news. It remains to be seen how effective the agreement is in operation, as well as how willing the Iraqi Kurds are to go along with the deal. But any development that reduces tensions in that part of Iraq is welcome.

I'm curious to know just how involved the US was in brokering this deal. It would be a reflection of how much influence we really have on either of these governments.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Monday, September 24, 2007

That, Mr. President, Is A Diss

Over the past week, there was some wringing of blogger hands and declarations of outrage over just how to deal with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Josh Marshall over at TPM suggested that it was beneath us to worry about the kind of propaganda points Ahmadinejad might score by laying a wreath at Ground Zero. Ezra Klein concurred. Kevin Drum wondered if he were alone in feeling queasy about letting such a creep use such a potent symbol for his advantage.

While I didn't post about it, I agreed with Josh and Ezra that it revealed a certain brittle fragility to deny him the right to visit the site. I also agreed with Kevin, though, that it wasn't wise to leave him alone to mind the store, so to speak. My thinking was that we risked nothing letting him go down there, so long as we came up with a good PR riposte, like a delegation of 9/11 widows to meet him there with a petition demanding that he cease funding terror groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.

But I think Columbia University President Lee Bollinger showed us all the proper way to handle the Iranian President. You call him out for the petty dictator he is. Because when it comes right down to it, the man is ridiculous. But that's easy to forget if we build him up into some malevolent super-villain.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Media Coverage   

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Canary In The Mine

This post isn't really inspired by any single major news item as much as by a whole slew of smaller ones. The thought was triggered by a blurb about Turkey opening its yearly fall offensive against the PKK a month earlier than normal this year, gathered steam with the news that Blackwater (or two of its employees) are the subject of an FBI investigation for illegally smuggling weapons to the PKK in Iraq, and culminated in an article about the US urging Turkey to find alternatives sources of natural gas instead of developing Iranian reserves as planned.

And the thought is that somehow, in pursuing a generation-defining war against Islamic extremism, we've managed to push the one democratic, secular, dependable Islamic ally we have in the region into the arms of our worst enemies.

Iran is a sexy story right now, and rightfully so. But when the dust of history settles on the Iraq War, I'm not sure that the unleashing of Iran will rate as its most significant adverse outcome. That honor might very well go to the deterioration of the American-Turkish strategic alliance. Because unlike Iraq or Iran, which we never really stood a chance of winning over, Turkey was already on our side. And we're in the process of losing it, at the very moment when religious Muslims have begun to dominate the Turkish political scene.

For the time being, the Turkish military and cultural elites serve as guarantors of secularism. But if Turkey ever does wind up sliding into theocracy, it will be a major strategic setback for American regional interests. And it will be in many ways traceable to bi-lateral tensions caused by our intervention in Iraq.

Iran is important. But the future of Turkey, it seems to me, will determine the future of the region.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Iran   Iraq   Turkey   

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Monday, September 24, 2007


The Bush administration and its proxies have been ramping up the rhetoric about Iranian interference in Iraq now since about January. And while it's understandable to suspect that the charges might be exagerrated (a healthy skepticism seems warranted as far as this administration and casus belli go), I don't think there's anything on the face of them that's surprising. In fact, it seems obvious that Iran would attempt to influence the outcome in Iraq, and not only influence it, but influence it in its own favor.

That's probably why securing the Iran-Iraq border to seal off smuggling routes for Iranian-supplied weapons has been such a high priority since the early days of the American occupation. Manned outposts were immediately put in place to plug the gaps in the border, well-known because they'd been used for years to supply anti-Saddam militants. The Iraqi troops trained to patrol the area were well-supplied and backed up by American firepower...

Oh, wait a minute. Maybe I got that wrong:

...Mueller and his troops are also getting a late start, basically trying to secure the thinly patrolled border from scratch after it was largely ignored during more than four years of war...

The problem has roots in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, when the American military was focused on seizing Baghdad. The U.S. Marines received orders to send patrols to the area southeast of Baghdad - but not to the frontier itself, despite fears it was a tempting entry point for Islamic militants from Iran.

In other words, the "Iran meddling in Iraq" talking point is yet another instance of the Bush administration's failure to plan for the aftermath of the invasion. I've seen a lot about the unguarded munitions dumps that basically provided the insurgency with explosives for use against American troops. But I haven't seen a lot on this. The same goes for the Syrian border.

If the Iranians are in Iraq, at least part of it has to do with the fact that we did everything but print out a personal invitation for them.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Don't Hold Back

Remember that WaPo article that quoted a "senior official" as saying that calling relations between CentCom commander Admiral William Fallon and Lt. Gen. David Petraeus bad would be "the understatement of the century"? Gareth Porter, in an article for IPS picked up by Asia Times, fills in some of the blanks:

Fallon told Petraeus that he considered him to be "an ass-kissing little chickenshit" and added, "I hate people like that," the sources say. That remark reportedly came after Petraeus began the meeting by making remarks that Fallon interpreted as trying to ingratiate himself with a superior.

I guess that does strike me as a little worse than bad.

On a more serious note, the rest of the article describes Fallon's strategic outlook for American force structure in the region. He is apparently very strongly opposed to a prolonged American engagement in Iraq. According to Porter, Fallon is more focused on keeping Pakistan stable and avoiding a hot war with Iran, both of which he feels necessitate a quick American drawdown in Iraq.

So why is it Congressional Democrats don't call for a Fallon Report?

Update: By the way, I found this article through a link from Corporal Cutten Paste

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Fourth And Long

Funny how closely the Petraeus Reports seem to follow the President's schedule for requesting supplemental funding for the Iraq War. According to an article two weeks ago in the WaPo, President Bush is confident he'll be able to get the $50 billion he needs this time around:

The request is being prepared now in the belief that Congress will be unlikely to balk so soon after hearing the two officials argue that there are promising developments in Iraq but that they need more time to solidify the progress they have made, a congressional aide said.

And the reassessment Petraeus referred to for March 2008? That's just about when the administration will be rolling out its spring supplemental request.

That's really the only way to understand the Petraeus testimony, which is nothing short of masterful. A little drawdown to satisfy the Democrats. A little progress to satisfy the GOP. And a strategically scheduled reassessment to forestall any firm decision.

Of course, the drawdown is a false drawdown, mandated by logistical strains on the American military. And the progress is false progress, belied by the numbers as well as the political impasse in Iraq. And the reassessment is a false reassessment, determined by the political calendar in Washington.

Punting might move the ball further into the opponent's end. But it shouldn't be confused with offense.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Monday, September 10, 2007

Cherry Picking

It's all well and good for Ryan Crocker to mention French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner's visit to Iraq as a sign that European states originally opposed to the war are now becoming more involved in trying to find a solution to the Iraq problem. What he left out is that Nicolas Sarkozy explicitly declared that a withdrawal timeline for American forces was essential to any progress being made.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   La France Politique   

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Monday, September 10, 2007

Let's You And Him Fight

Ryan Crocker just made an important point about the distinct identities, cultures, histories, and languages that separate Iraq's Arab Shiites from Iran's Persian Shiites. The common refrain of American advocates of an extended force commitment is that should we leave, Iraq will become at the very least an Iranian alliy, and at worst an Iranian proxy or satellite.

I've never understood the logic behind that. While it's true that Iran would be the primary ally of Iraqi Shiites as they face off against Iraqi Sunnis, the reality is that there is no monolithic Shiite faction in Iraq. That's part of the reason that the Iraqi government is so ineffectual. In fact, the Badr Brigades and Mahdi Army are busy massacring each other, in parts of Baghdad, as well as in the South. And I don't see how Iran would be able to stop that any better than we have.

Strategically, an American withdrawal from Iraq would turn the Iraqi meltdown, complete with intra-Shiite fighting and al-Qaeda, into an Iranian problem. That doesn't seem like such a bad idea.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, September 6, 2007

Treating The Wounded

With all the debate over the Surge being reduced to whether or not the statistics for sectarian violence have gone up or down, and whether or not there's been political reconciliation from the top down or the bottom up, it's easy to lose sight of all the metrics that are being left out of the equation.

For instance, this article from the IRIN news service which describes the crisis gripping Iraqi hospitals and clinics. According to the Iraqi Medical Association, roughly 75% of doctors, nurses and pharmacists have left their posts, and 55% have left the country altogether. Low wages and a shortage of equipment and medications are contributing factors. But the primary reason Iraq's doctors are packing up and leaving is the threat of violence from sectarian militias.

In other words, the Bush administration and Lt. Gen. Petraeus have succeeded in defining the terms of the debate. And while we're all busy parsing the who, what, where, how and why's of casualty statistics, there's nobody left in Baghdad to treat the wounded. Which strikes me as a far more significant barometer of the country's viability, or lack thereof, than whether or not a bunch of thugs in the Green Zone have hammered out the fine print for how to divvy up the petro-dollars. Andrew Sullivan posted a video about a visual phenomenon, which he calls "inattention blindness", but which magicians call misdirection. This is the political version.

When Iraq's doctors not only stop leaving the country, but start coming back, we can start talking about progress. Until then, it's all just smoke and mirrors.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Media Coverage   

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Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Know Your Enemy

Greg Djerejian of The Belgravia Dispacth has a long post identifying the source of the real threat we face with regard to terrorism. In a nutshell, he poses the following the question:

...Put differently, how did the attack on downtown Manhattan lead us to become involved in ostensibly decades long nation building efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and perhaps to come, a bombing campaign that would likely lead to a full-blown conflict with the Islamic Republic of Iran?

In my view, the greatest threat we face in the post 9/11 era are radicalized Islamists of mostly lower to middle class background who have grown up or emigrated to cities like Madrid, London, Paris, Hamburg, Milan... The radical Islamists who threaten us the most are those who have become technologically sophisticated, who perhaps speak our language, who can more easily appear ‘Westernized’, and meantime have become highly alienated by the West, basically the Mohammed Atta type. Which is to say, not rural peasants in the environs of Kandahar or impoverished Shi'a slum-dwellers south of Baghdad...

Greg's point is on the money, but for one thing: Looks like we'll have to add Copenhagen to the list. Because the Danish police have just arrested a cell of eight suspected bomb plotters who all match Greg's description to a tee. And initial reports suggest that at least several of them have direct links to al-Qaeda's top leadership.

Americans have a tendency to minimize the target value of "minor" countries like Denmark, while getting unnerved by every Moe, Curly and Larry nabbed by the FBI and DHS stateside. But these arrests confirm the pattern of the London and Madrid bombings, as well as recent intelligence reports that suggest that Islamic terrorists are increasingly turning their sights on Western Europe as a second "front".

But while it's important to take these threats seriously, it's also important not to lose sight of the kinds of distinctions that Greg makes. This kind of analysis seems like an opportunity for Democrats to turn their perceived weakness on National Security into a strength. Because there's really no way we can defeat our enemy if we can't even identify him.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Iraq   

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Friday, August 31, 2007

The End Of Moqtada?

A few days ago, McClatchy's Leila Fadel sat down with Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki for a wide-ranging interview that's well worth a read. But of particular interest was this section, which Matthew Yglesias alertly flagged:

FADEL: Why not, at this time, when there are troubled relations, and the Mahdi Army is being accused of killing governors and running astray?

MALIKI: I have no problem with meeting him. But he withdrew from the challenges to a large degree and he has big problems within the movement. That is why I have meetings with leaders from the movement but not with Muqtada and I have many efforts for reform and to bridge the mistakes through bilateral or more dialogue. Perhaps what is holding back our talks is my firm rejection of the policies adopted by the movement. And I believe some leaders have begun to understand my position and accept it as the correct position in spite of my firmness. Indeed now is the time for meetings but I believe that meeting the leaders who actually represent the movement is more to the point and more effective in quelling the situation and in isolating the gangs from the good elements and cadres in the movement. 

As Matthew noted, the passage suggests that al-Sadr has lost control of the Mahdi militia, the armed wing of his movement. This isn't surprising, given that al-Sadr has kept a decidedly low profile since the beginning of the Surge, and that according to various reports Iran has been providing support to rogue Mahdi leaders who have grown impatient with al-Sadr's policy of restraint.

The day after the Maliki interview came news that al-Sadr had declared a suspension of all armed activity by the Mahdi militia, in order to purge rogue elements. The move followed a pitched battle between rival Shiite factions in Karbala, which was apparently not authorized by al-Sadr.

Now IraqSlogger is reporting that Sadr City, al-Sadr's fief in Baghdad, is effectively under siege by Iraqi security forces. In the past, the only thing standing in the way of an American crackdown was Maliki's need for al-Sadr's support to stay in power. But now it looks like the Iraqis are even willing to do the job themselves.

Is it possible, just a few short months after his return from post-Surge exile (during which he positioned himself as a unifier by reaching out to Sunnis and trying to transcend Iraq's sectarian divide), that Moqtada al-Sadr is through? The guy's a survivor, so it's hard to count him out. But it looks like the writing's on the wall.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Bully Pulpit

Another thing that occured to me while reading Getting to YES, the basic primer on negotiation, was the Bush administration's emphasis on what Fisher and Ury call positional negotiation. This is where one side locks itself into a firm position and either refuses to budge or is willing to do so only incrementally. The classic example is a buyer and seller haggling over a price, with the buyer starting low and the seller starting high. Either they meet somewhere in the middle or not at all. But the entire process essentially becomes a battle of wills.

They contrast that with principled negotiation, by which they mean not only determining one's negotiating position as a function of one's interests, but trying to understand the other party's interests in order to find creative ways to sweeten the deal for them. This could take the form of a buyer offering a lower price, but agreeing to forego delivery. Or a seller asking for a higher price, but guaranteeing the product. When interests determine bargaining positions, instead of a battle of wills, the negotiation becomes a cooperative effort to find the most mutually beneficial deal.

I think it's fairly obvious that the Bush administration's negotiating style is a pretty hard-nosed game of positional bargaining with a strong emphasis on "take-it-or-leave it" as their opening offer. And this whether they're dealing with the Kyoto Accords, Saddam Hussein, the Iranians, or Congressional Democrats. With the exception of the N. Korean settlement, the Bush administration has made it clear that they like their chances in the event that negotiations fail (what the authors call the BATNA, or Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement). Which is to say, they're willing to duke it out if they don't get what they want, be it in the courts or on the battlefield.

It's essentially an intimidation tactic designed to weaken the will of the folks across the table from them. And according to Fisher and Ury, both experts on negotiation and conflict resolution, it's not as efficient a negotiating method as one based on identifying interests and developing new options for advancing them. Why? Because it often results in "leaving money on the table", negotiators' jargon for mutual benefits that would have come at no cost to either party but which don't make it into the final agreement.

Now just to be clear, there are cases where I think in retrospect that the Bush administration correctly walked away from negotiations. Those with the Taliban preceding the invasion of Afghanistan, for example, where the non-negotiated outcome (had we not prematurely redeployed our resources to Iraq) would have left us in a better position than anything we might have come up with at the negotiating table. [Although it's important to remember that at the time, it appeared to many as if the administration was not paying enough attention to the Russians' Afghan adventure in its contingency planning. In other words, that it was over-estimating its BATNA.]

The Iraq War, as I said yesterday, is not one of those cases. Because while it's clear that Saddam Hussein paid a pretty high price for over-estimating his BATNA, it's equally clear that we did, too. I think the same can be said for walking away from the Kyoto Accords which, while it might not get a lot of domestic play, caused a great deal of resentment abroad. Resentment that, after a brief moment of post-9/11 solidarity, was quick to resurface during the run-up to the Iraq War. The applause that greeted Dominique de Villepin's UN Security Council speech did not occur in a historical vacuum, in other words. And that primed pump of anti-Americanism was one of the uncalculated costs of our previous positional approach.

As I also said yesterday, it looks like the Bush administration has every intention of repeating the same error in its approach to the Iranian dossier. Pre-conditions, threats and public finger-pointing are all hallmarks of rigid positional negotiations. In the case of Iran, which must feel pretty secure in its own BATNA right now, they are also ways of ensuring that no progress will be made.

I'll work up what I think an interest-based, principled negotiation framework between Iran and the US might look like tomorrow.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Iraq   

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Best Alternative

I’ve just finished reading Roger Fisher’s and William Ury’s classic on the art of negotiating, Getting To YES. Originally published in 1981, with a second edition released in 1991 (I’m sure there have been other editions since, but that’s the one I picked off my Dad’s shelf in New York), it’s as relevant today as it was then.

What I found particularly timely was the discussion of whether to negotiate with terrorists or tyrants. According to the authors, it depends on what they call the BATNA, or Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement. That’s the best possible scenario you could come up with if negotiations either fail or don’t take place:

Even with someone like Hitler or Stalin, we should negotiate if negotiation holds the promise of achieving an outcome that, all things considered, meets our interests better than our BATNA. When a war does occur, in many cases it is a move within a negotiation. The violence is intended to change the other side’s BATNA, or their perception of it, so that they will more readily agree to our terms for peace.

Then there’s this :

Governments often make the mistake of assuming that they have a better BATNA than they do – for example, when they imply that if "political" and "economic" means fail in a given situation, then there is always the "military option." There is not always a viable military option…

Don’t assume you have a BATNA better than negotiating, or that you don’t. Think it through. Then decide whether negotiating makes sense. (Emphasis in original.)

I think that captures in a nutshell the mistakes made by the Bush administration, both in invading Iraq and in refusing to negotiate with Iran: It has consistently over-estimated its (our) BATNA.

Experience has shown that the threat of military force to reach a negotiated inspection regime would have been a far more efficient means of containing Saddam Hussein’s weapons program (in terms of cost in blood, treasure and regional influence) than the actual use of it has been.

So why didn’t we do some last-minute negotiating when our forces were massed on the Kuwait border? Partly because Saddam Hussein had a track record of being an unreliable negotiating partner. But mainly because the Bush administration wildly over-estimated our BATNA. Not in forecasting a quick and decisive military victory (which I don’t think anyone doubted), but in ignoring the ease with which our various well-wishers in the area could (and would) spoil the party afterwards.

All of this takes on even more relevance in light of the Bush administration’s refusal to negotiate directly with the Iranians over their uranium enrichment program (the authors consider that setting pre-conditions to negotiations, such as freezing the uranium enrichment process, is tantamount to refusing to negotiate), as well as its refusal to “take the military option off the table”.

Both of these tactics are designed to make the Iranians re-consider (ie. downgrade) their BATNA, thereby making negotiations more attractive and concessions more palatable. But they also reflect the Bush administration’s current best thinking on our own. Namely, that in the absence of the Iranians completely caving in on what they correctly consider to be a sovereign right (which is an exceedingly remote possibility, to say the least), we stand a better chance of containing Iran’s regional influence (because that’s what this boils down to) through military means than through negotiations.

On the face of it, that seems like a pretty obvious miscalculation. To begin with, the chances of completely crippling the Iranian enrichment program, as the Israelis did to Saddam Hussein's Osiraq reactor in 1981, are pretty slim. At best, we can set it back a bit, but that seems likely to provoke a wider conflict and possibly even all-out war. Again, the danger isn't a defeat at the hands of the Iranian army but the aftermath: A longterm, low-intensity bloodletting with periodic flare-ups that will require an American military commitment for the foreseeable future. Cue the draft, followed not long after by an angry American public and an eventual withdrawal. Like it or not, America is not ancient Sparta, and outside of Hollywood blockbusters, Americans don't have a taste for blood. Contrary to what Dick Cheney thinks, that's a good thing.

Which leaves us with engagement and mutual accomodation. Because despite the neocon tactic of equating any negotiations at all with the Munich Accords (ie. appeasement), effective negotiations allow both sides to maximize benefits and minimize costs. The obvious shortcoming of the Munich comparison is that it assumes that all of our regional rivals/enemies will be negotiating in as bad faith as Hitler was, and that we will be negotiating from as weak a position as Chamberlain was. But the Iranians have actually proven to be pretty reliable negotiating partners, and we're nowhere near as hamstrung as Chamberlain was in 1936, even if the Iraq fiasco has greatly weakened our bargaining position.

I’ll have more on the Bush administration’s emphasis on positional, as opposed to principled, negotiation -- and how this, too, has contributed to its sterling foreign policy record -- tomorrow.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Iraq   

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Inventing New Options

I already popped this into the "Must Read" link-box, but I can't over-emphasize how much it really deserves a look. And not just because it basically arrives at the same conclusion I did seven months ago. It's about the clearest strategic analysis of what's now at stake in Iraq that I've seen to date. It also does a good job of identifying the weaknesses of the three major proposals now on the table in order to come up with a viable fourth option. Give it a look. And drop any comments you have here. I'm curious to hear what people think of this.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Ever-Changing Enemy

This is really a piece of work. According to the Bush administration, our enemy -- now known as Violent Islamic Radicalism -- is engaged in a pincer-like tactic, with Sunni extremists ("embodied by al Qaeda and its terrorist allies") on one side and Shiite extremists ("supported and embodied by Iran's Government") on the other. Their goal? To bring down Iraq's "young democracy". Of course, since the only thing keeping Iraq's "young democracy" (or Iraq's young anything, for that matter) viable is American armed forces, they're both doing everything they can to "drive us out". The danger is that, if they succeed in driving us out of Iraq, they'll be emboldened by our retreat and enriched by Iraq's billions of dollars in oil revenues, and thus more likely to carry out attacks here on the homeland. And if they succeed in driving us out of the Middle East entirely, well, why, then, all hell would really break loose.

Now, part of me wants to react to this the way I do when my six year-old son begins arguing with me about something that's just too farfetched to spend a whole lot of time on. Which is to tell him he can argue all he wants, he'll be as wrong when he's done as he was when he started.

But just for the heck of it, here goes. To begin with, as even the White House acknowledges, these two branches of radical Islamic extremism are "vying for control of the Middle East". (Think "Left Behind", only the semi-finals.) Which means they are adversaries (or rivals, or enemies, take your pick). A well-conceived plan would take advantage of that, by perhaps pitting one side against the other, instead of presenting them with a common enemy, thereby allowing them to advance their respective agendas without infringing on each other's turf in the slightest.

Second, given that the admittedly spotty UN embargo was able to essentially cripple Saddam Hussein's army, which benefitted from a state apparatus, does anyone really believe that non-state actors in a post-American Iraq are going to be awash in petro-dollars?

And finally, when has anyone (aside from Osama Bin Laden) talked about the US leaving the Middle East altogether? Oh, that's right. I remember when. Never.

All that aside, though, the White House's talking points on post-Surge progress (ie. "It Makes No Sense To Respond To Military Progress By Claiming That We Have Failed Because Iraq's Parliament Has Yet To Pass Every Law It Said It Would.") are a clear signal that short of Congressional intervention, President Bush is not going to pull the plug on the war. It's Bush's Folly. And the show must go on.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Thursday, August 23, 2007


Since President Bush feels like making comparisons to the Vietnam War, here's one that seems more appropriate. One of the major problems of that war was the fact that the military based its assessment of the war's progress on metrics that, a) were conceived of in order to prove progress was being made; and b) bore no resemblance to how things were actually evolving on the ground.

Take body counts, for instance. In a conventional war of attrition, relative casualties might indeed indicate which side is actually winning. But in a guerilla insurgency, how many more insurgents you killed this week compared to last is only half the equation. Just as important is how many less civilians joined the insurgency this week compared to last. Throw in the fact that patrol leaders eager to "make" their quotas regularly counted any Vietnamese body as a Viet Cong casualty and you'll understand why the casualty figures had very little bearing on the war's outcome. A black & white photo of a young girl fleeing an American napalm attack on her village, on the other hand, was absolutely devastating.

I was reminded of the question of metrics by this article, admittedly on the Iranian state news agency's English language website, of a press conference held by Iraq's Minister of Electricity who, in the presence of two American military officers, thanked the Iranians for supplying Basra and Wasit with electricity.

Now, think about that for a second. Four years into an American occupation and reconstruction of Iraq, and the Iraqis are thanking the Iranians for their electricity. And this in the same week that the Iraqi Prime Minister was busy cosying up to our good friends, the Syrians.

It might very well be that the civilian death toll in Baghdad has decreased over the course of the Surge, although the numbers have been disputed by enough reliable sources that I have my doubts. And it might very well be that the Surge has improved the security conditions in Iraq, along with other serendipitous events, like the turning of Anbar Sunnis.

The question is, On which of these two metrics are we going to base a continued commitment of American forces to Iraq?

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Fall Guy

Now that's what I call timing. The other day I explained why opposition to the Iraq War marks the end of the post-Vietnam era. Today, Josh Marshall discusses advance reports of a speech in which President Bush plans to invoke the Vietnam War to justify his Iraq War policy.

As I said in my previous post, it's a shame Democrats haven't already gotten a head start on this angle. Opposition to the Iraq War hasn't been nearly as divisive as that of the Vietnam War. The broad middle ground of public opinion has largely reached a consensus that transcends generational and cultural boundaries. Even more significantly, with the exception of the Surge (which came out of left field), President Bush's Iraq War policy has consistently been a matter of catching up to public opinion and facts on the ground, usually 6-9 months after those have coalesced.

So, to repeat a bit of what I wrote the other day, this debate has for all intents and purposes been decided. It's only a matter of time before the Iraq War is drawn down. What's at stake in President Bush's speech isn't so much what will happen as how what happens will be framed. The more extreme elements of rightwing opinion have already trotted out a "stabbed in the back by domestic opposition" meme to explain our failure in Iraq. By re-opening the debates of the Vietnam era, President Bush is taking that argument mainstream.

It's absolutely essential that Democrats push back against this attack aggressively. The good news is that the facts are on their side. There are no acid-dropping, tie dye-wearing, pinko Commie-loving, longhaired, unwashed bogeymen to blame this time around. The folks who oppose our continued presence in Iraq work in the same offices, go to the same schools, listen to the same music, and wear the same clothing as the dwindling few who support it.

Democrats need to look straight into the camera and spell it out clearly for the American people: "The person who is ultimately responsible for the failure in Iraq is the President. Not the troops, not the Democrats, and not the people who oppose the war. But instead of taking responsibility for his failure, President Bush is blaming you. The President is blaming you for his failure in Iraq."

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Legal Fictions

There's been a lot of background chatter recently about replacing the Maliki government in Iraq, whether by coup or by ballot. Here's Sen. Carl Levin, just back from a fact-finding trip to Iraq:

I hope that the Iraqi assembly, when it reconvenes in a few weeks, will vote the Maliki government out of office and will have the wisdom to replace it with a less sectarian and a more unifying prime minister and government.

I'm not sure where to begin with a remark like that. For starters, just who does Levin have in mind? The reason Iraq skeptics are ready to throw in the towel is because a "unifying prime minister and government" does not exist.

As much as anything, this kind of remark reveals the Iraqi government for the legal fiction it is. It's an unwritten but often declared tenet of international relations that sovereign countries don't meddle in each other's internal affairs. That's why heads of state refuse to endorse candidates in foreign elections. To openly call for a prime minister's replacement borders on open hostilities.

The reality is that, absent American forces, Iraq does not meet the criteria of a sovereign nation. So it's unrealistic to expect a unifying central government. What Levin and others are expressing is simply frustration that despite all our investment of both blood and treasure, we can't even get the pretense of one.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Monday, August 20, 2007

The End Of An Era

One point I haven't seen made yet regarding opinion on the Iraq War is that despite GOP attempts to turn it into a partisan wedge issue, America is simply not experiencing the same kind of generational and cultural divisiveness that accompanied the Vietnam War. Now, part of this has to do with the fact that, domestically speaking, the historical context today is nowhere near as tumultuous as it was forty years ago. And what tumult there is has more to do with popular culture adapting to technological advances than with violent political/cultural clashes.

To be sure, America remains divided politically. But simply put, you can no longer tell what side of the debate someone's likely to come down on based on the length of their hair, the color of their skin, the music they listen to, or the syle of clothing they wear. What's more, opposition to the war is not driven by a vibrant pacifist movement, or even a pacifist impulse. War has been rehabilitated as an arm of foreign policy, and has since been waged and endorsed by both Democratic and Republican administrations alike.

There's been no widespread demonization of the military this time around, either. To the contrary, without having seen any polling on the question, I'd be willing to wager that most people who feel like we've failed in Iraq blame the civilian leaders and the brass, not the soldiers. In other words, the debate on the Iraq War signals not a return to the post-Vietnam era, but the end of it.

So far, Democrats haven't taken as much advantage of this as they could have, not in order to win the debate, which for all intents and purposes is over. (The Iraq War will be wound down over the course of the next 18-24 months, depending on how far in that direction President Bush is willing to move before leaving office.) But in order to shape public opinion on how we came to lose Iraq. Instead of discussing their plans for leaving, they need to start framing the withdrawal as a tactical retreat to better contain the mess we've made by going in in the first place.

And above all, they need to point out that there are no hippies to blame this time around. Anyone claiming that opposition to the war caused its failure is blaming a clear majority of ordinary Americans for our defeat.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Collective Memory

Today marks the 63rd anniversary of the liberation of Aups (the tiny village in the South of France where I've lived for the past six years) by American troops. And as you can tell from the picture below, the date is still very much etched in the collective memory of the village. Every year, a group of avid collectors of WWII-era American Jeeps and memorabilia organizes a procession that culminates in a gathering on the main square.

The commemoration has taken place every year I've been here, under Chirac as under Sarkozy, despite the overwhelming opposition of French opinion to the Iraq War. Which exposes the neocon attacks on French "amnesia" for the reductionist distortions they were. The fact is, no one here has forgotten the sacrifices made by the American people to liberate France. They were just capable of assessing the merits of an invasion of Iraq independently of that history.

French dissent was not betrayal. Just as American dissent is not treachery. Any suggestion to the contrary is demagoguery of the worst kind.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

Rope A Dope

I've talked before about the US Army website's news page linking to articles critical of the Iraq War. Today, they've got a link to one about the spinning of casualty reports from the Surge. According to Al Jazeera Magazine, July's reduced death toll (80 deaths compared to three months in triple digits) is due more to the scaling back of offensive operations in Baghdad than to any real gains made in pacifying that city.

Although one of the principle goals of the Surge was to get troops out among Iraqis to win hearts and minds, US forces seem instead to be holing up in the forward outposts they fought to establish in the Surge's early stages. The Israelis are wondering if the change in tactics is related to weakening domestic support for the war effort:

A decline in American activity in Iraq also has been noted by Israeli intelligence, another source said, raising some concern in Tel Aviv that the U.S. military was shying away from offensive operations to avoid higher casualties that would further undermine political support for the war in the United States.

The source said some Israeli officials want the Americans to keep taking the fight to the enemy.

It's funny. Some folks, when they watch The Rumble In The Jungle, think, "If only Foreman had hit Ali harder, he would have won."

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

You're Always A Day Away

You know the political situation in Iraq is bad when potentially disastrous events being postponed is about the closest thing to progress you can find. So it is with the Kirkuk referendum, which has the potential to put Turkey on edge by delivering that oil-rich city to the Kurds, but which is unlikely to take place this year as previously planned.

Of course, given the vast array of irreconciliable differences confronting the various parties, the Iraqi political arrangement seems to reward the "Don't do today what you can put off until tomorrow" approach. But that kind of logic eventually runs into obstacles, often in the form of rotating fan blades.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Friday, August 17, 2007

The Pre-Petraeus Report

In yet more telegraphing of next month's report to Congress, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno has suggested that troops rotated out of Iraq next year won't be replaced, meaning American troop levels will gradually be drawn down in 2008. This is fairly consistent with what Lt. Gen. Petraeus said in an interview a few days ago, but which no one seems to have picked up on. The line seems to be "We've made gains, although there have been no miracles. Should they hold, we'll start rotating troops out as their tours come to an end."

Outside of a brief spike this fall, when five brigades rotating in will briefly raise troop levels to their highest level for the Iraq War (171,000), it seems clear that from here on out it's one-way tickets Stateside. The Iraq War debate has for all intents and purposes been settled. Declare victory, rotate home, and blame the Democratic President who orders the last man out.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Hard Place, Tough Talk

I'm thinking this kind of analysis might not make it into the GOP's YouTube debate. Or the Democrats', for that matter. From "Beyond Iraq: Lessons Of A Hard Place", by Anton K. Smith:

Muslim extremist terrorism is not wanton. It has political purpose, is based on warped but attractive religious precepts, and is built around the cause of confronting Western oppression and restoring Islamic dignity. It constitutes an insurgency against the global order. To employ the tools we have by attacking states is counterproductive, since an implicit target of the Muslim insurgency is the system of states itself, at least insofar as it can be forcibly altered to permit reestablishment of the caliphate... (p. 3)

Good thing the monograph is published by the Army War College, otherwise Smith might be accused of rooting for the enemy. Actually, he'll probably be accused of that anyway, seeing as how he works for the State Department. But what, in fact, he's arguing for is a reshoring of the nation-state system, namely through the United States re-assuming its traditional role of guarantor of the global stability:

Our response to 9/11 may have done more to further the interests of our jihadist opponents than our own, in that we have weakened an international system they view as illegitimate and destabilized the Middle East in a manner they now seek to exploit... Perception of the inability of the United States to deliver global security (and unwilling to be constrained by international opinion and cooperative arrangements) will erode global confidence, contribute to economic and political instability, and encourage non-state insurgents. Within the Middle East region, our natural allies in this fight are strong, moderate states, even if some of those states espouse views that run counter to our own. To restore vitality to the system we must begin to reconcile with proto-democratic Iran and secular Syria... (p. 6)

...Promoting the primacy of economic over political development is as crucial to stability in the Middle East today as it was in our own history. In the end, encouraging the growth of strong, vibrant and moderate states in the Middle East is our best hedge against the global jihadist threat. (p.7)

Note the primacy of economic over political development, because that's the thrust of Smith's argument. The problem he has with the Bush doctrine was its emphasis on free elections instead of free markets:

...Strong and economically vibrant middle classes will do more to support our goals than all the military power we can muster. (p. 7)

And while the establishment of socially dispersed economic freedom depends upon security and order, we also need to be realistic:

Our own history tells us states are most often forged in the crucible of violence. If we wish to see mature states in the Middle East, we must make way for violence there, reserving the exercise of force and subversion to those instances when vital U.S. interests are truly at stake... This clash of Islam is internal, reflecting a division within a religion. We have seen something like this in our own history. The bloody battle is on, but it is not ours. Our best hope is to contain and shape the conflict in ways that support the modern states system. Despite the fact states maturing in the Middle East diverge from our conceptual framework, we should avoid undermining upstart republics as the system develops. We have accepted a nuclear-armed religious state wrapped around democratic principles in Israel. We may have to accommodate one in Iran... (p. 7)

It's a sharp analysis, although the Milton Friedman worship makes me a bit uncomfortable. But I'm willing to forgive that to anyone who manages to cite Clausewitz and Kurt Vonnegut in the same article. 

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Iraq   

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Second Insurgency

I kind of left off posting about the Iraq reconstruction debacle, but that doesn't mean it's gone away. Apparently last month produced a record number of criminal and adminstrative cases involving corruption in Iraq reconstruction contracts. Unfortunately, that only amounts to 11 people and five companies. Which isn't exactly going to break what Stuart Bowen, Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, calls the "second insurgency."

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Petraeus Tips His Hand

This seems like a pretty big deal, if you ask me. Apparently, Lt. Gen. David Petraeus has announced that he'll be recommending minor troop reductions in his report to Congress next month:

We know that the surge has to come to an end, there's no question about that. I think everyone understands that by about a year or so from now we've got to be a good bit smaller than we are right now.

He stipulates that the reductions should be gradual so as not to jeopardize the "gains" we've made. But it looks like Petraeus is every bit as sharp as people made him out to be when he took the assignment in January. There's no telling what kind of fairy tale the White House political hacks would have cooked up if the report was left to them as planned. By tipping his hand directly to the press, he makes sure their punch isn't spiked with the hard stuff.

So where does this leave Rudy, Mitt and McCain? Seems like they're busy rabblerousing the GOP dead-enders for a policy that's already on ice.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

300 Bridges Too Far

The in-flight movies I saw going to and coming from New York: "A Bridge Too Far", which deals concretely with the Second World War, and "300", which deals metaphorically with the Bush administration's effort to re-shape the Middle East by military means. Between them, they demonstrated how Hollywood in particular, and popular culture in general, usually serves a propaganda function during a war, while providing a more critical perspective once the war is actually over.

"A Bridge Too Far", which I saw coming to New York, fits neatly alongside other post-War fictional treatments of WWII, like "Catch-22" or "The Naked and the Dead". While the individual soldiers are portrayed heroically, the military command is rife with politics, careerism and ego. As a result, good soldiers are needlessly sacrificed to carry out a plan doomed to failure. Those who foresee the plan's flaws are either shunted aside or urged not to "rock the boat".

"300", on the other hand, is among the most shockingly militarist American movies I've ever seen. In no uncertain terms, it equates honor with discipline, glory with dying in battle, and leadership with physical dominance and brutality. Freedom (which apparently means the right to serve as cannon-fodder) must be paid for in blood. The danger from without comes at the hands of an androgenous enemy who uses pleasure to first seduce and then enslave his minions. Submitting to him is represented in a not-so-veiled way to sodomy. Those who recognize the "threat" are idealists. Those working to undermine them from within are the "realists". The takeaway from the film is that with time, deaths that seem needless and wasted will come to be seen as heroic and visionary. In other words, whether or not the "Persians" represent Iran and the next war or Iraq and this one, Sparta certainly represents what the neocons would like America to look like.

Supporters of Bush's folly in Iraq often point to the sacrifices this country made to win WWII. And during the war, Hollywood certainly churned out a ton of propaganda films that functioned -- like "300" -- to support the war effort. But even the universal acceptance of that war's noble aims didn't blind people to the shortcomings of the military command, all of which were vigorously lampooned and scathingly attacked once the war was over.

The turnaround was even shorter for the Vietnam War, which is part of what accounts for the common refrain of "Support the troops". But that's only half the equation of what the past sixty-odd years have taught us. Support the troops, yes. But question the generals. And hold the Commander-in-Chief accountable.

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   Iraq   

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Whack A Mole

This IraqSlogger graphic gives the lie to the claim that the Surge is diminishing sectarian violence in Baghdad. According to their analysis, an average of 20 bound corpses are found daily, many of them in the last few neighborhoods that are not already effectively "ethnically cleansed". Since American forces focus on areas where they've been attacked, rather than where sectarian violence is necessarily occuring, the killings have crept back up to pre-Surge levels in the last few months.

Of course, this directly contradicts the consensus right-wing narrative of a new strategy that needs to be given time to work. So it won't be long before we hear that the insurgents understand that the American public is monitoring sectarian violence as a litmus test of the Surge's success, and they're simply killing each other to take advantage of our lack of resolve.

Now's as good a time as any to wonder: At what point will the Bill Kristol crowd begin to question the distinction between an enemy that prevents us from achieving our objectives and failure?

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Well's Run Dry

When you weed out the minutae of Parliamentary procedure and the exacerbating factors of political animosity, there are really only four arguments presented by opponents to a phased withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. First, the surge is either working or a step in the right direction that if maintained will eventually lead to a successful outcome. Second, an American withdrawal will severely damage our reputation and lead our allies and enemies to question our resolve. Third, if we leave Iraq now, it will allow elements of the global jihadi movement that have infiltrated the country to "follow us back home". And fourth, Iraq will become a killing field of sectarian violence if we leave without having stabilized the country.

The trouble with the first argument is that we've been hearing variations of it for four years now. And despite repeated right-wing attempts to undermine the press's credibility and call into question the American public's intestinal fortitude, most Americans just aren't buying it anymore. While it's certainly true that there are areas where progress is being made, taken as a whole, the picture is one of increasing violence and chaos. Even if we could turn the tide through continued military engagement -- and that's a big if -- the question now becomes at what price? This is where opponents of withdrawal have been less than forthcoming. How long is a long, hard slog? How many casualties can we expect during that time? How much of our financial resources will be ciphoned out of the Federal budget? To ask these questions is neither a sign of cowardice nor a lack of patriotism. To refuse to answer them, on the other hand, is.

The second argument is even flimsier. If our international reputation has been tarnished by the Iraq War, it isn't because we're now considering putting an end to the fiasco. It's because of how we conceived and prosecuted it to begin with. In fighting the Cold War, we understood that military preparedness wasn't enough to defeat a competing ideology. Putting a man on the moon and sending Peace Corps volunteers into the heart of global poverty were just as, if not more, important. The Global War On Terror has focused solely on repressive military responses. What's even worse, those responses have been poorly targeted (Iraq had nothing to do with the War on Terror) and incompetently carried out. Across the board, America's enemies are now taking pleasure in the difficulties we're encountering in Iraq and the losses we've suffered. And our allies, far fom questioning our resolve, have taken to questioning our judgment.

The third argument would be laughable if it weren't so tragic. To begin with, because Iraq has become a refuge for global jihadists because of the chaos caused by the War (which allows them to train new recruits in live-fire, battlefield conditions), not in spite of it. But even more significantly, global jihadists are already returning from Iraq to set up recruiting stations and operational cells in Western Europe. From there they will have easier access to not only European targets, but also American ones, through the use of European-born, second-generation recruits.

If there is an argument that causes advocates of withdrawal to pause, it is the prospect of Iraq descending into an even-bloodier hell of internecine and sectarian violence once we've left. No one can take this possibility lightly. And yet, if the questions of cost, likelihood of success, and the impact on American interests are valid reasons not to intiate direct military interventions in civil wars and sectarian violence (Darfur, Somalia, and Congo to name a few), then they're also valid reasons for bringing a failed military intervention to an end. Preventing an Iraqi bloodletting is in the interests of all the major players in the region, which means that there's a possibility of avoiding one even after we've withdrawn from the middle of the battlefield.

What's obvious is that, opponents' baseless arguments to the contrary, we're heading inexorably towards a phased withdrawal of troops. What's at play is how many needless causalties we'll incur before Congressional Republicans gather the courage to reject the President's failed policies, and what we leave in place afterwards. I still advocate a contingency force stationed out of the line of fire for a 3-5 year period, ideally under an international mandate. That will become less likely, however, should the political endgame become a question of rats jumping off a sinking ship.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Friday, July 20, 2007

My Age Is The Same As The Olive Tree

That's what one Iraqi man had tattooed on his shoulder so that his parents would be able to identify him in the event his unrecognizable corpse ends up in a garbage dump, or a morgue, or floating in a river. It's become a commonplace response to the constant threat of sudden death.

And according to the article, it's not just to help families achieve emotional closure. A new racket spreading through the country involves using mobile phones collected at the sites of suicide bombings to convince families that a loved one has been kidnapped. Once the ransom has been paid, the "kidnappers" reveal that the loved one is in fact dead.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Iraq Reconstruction, Nigerian Style

I suppose it was bound to happen sooner or later, but the Nigerian scheme just went Iraqi. Here's an e-mail I just received from a certain Abd al-Rahman:

Dear sir,


My name is ( ABD-AL-RAHMAN) and this is an urgent contract.We have recieved an allocation for a contract to supply your company’s Product, this is a Multi Million Dollars worth of international supplies to Iraq.

My benefactor in this project is a high level Iraqi Government official who has mandated me to seek for your confidential cooperation and participation in this contract.If your company is capable of supplying or help to re-construct iraq, You would be paid cash before you supply. If you can assist us, then kindly contact me immediately via the details below,and make sure to furnish me with your full company profile,full names,direct telephone and fax numbers,and include your direct email address.

As soon as we recieve your response, we shall get back to you with all details to commence.

Thank you.


Anyone who feels like doing business with him, feel free to drop him a line.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

That's Cold

Keep your eye on this one. Yesterday, President Bush issued an Executive Order authorizing the Treasury Dept. to freeze the assets of anyone "threatening the peace or stability of Iraq or the Government of Iraq". My hunch is that it's a way to target Iranian assets. But then again it also targets anyone...

...undermining efforts to promote economic reconstruction and political reform in Iraq or to provide humanitarian assistance to the Iraqi people;

So I suppose they could be going after Halliburton, too.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Monday, July 16, 2007

Agua Negra

We've all heard about how the US military subcontracts security assignments in Iraq out to American mercenary outfits like Blackwater. Now maybe this has been covered before and I just missed it, but it turns out that companies like Blackwater subcontract their security assignments in Iraq out to South American mercenary outfits that recruit ex-soldiers from places like Peru, Ecuador, Honduras and Chile.

One Chilean legislator estimated that as many as 1,000 Chilean mercenaries are currently in Iraq, and a United Nations panel headed by José Luis Gomez del Prado is currently in Chile investigating claims of poor training and misleading recruiting practices:

"Presently, we know that there are ex-military and ex-police recruited by a Chilean company with headquarters in Uruguay, a company that has the support of a U.S. company," said Gomez del Prado. "These [private security] companies come to Latin American countries and recruit people for $31 a day, which is what we just saw in Peru. And once they are on a plane or bus, recruits are made to sign an English contract with a sister company from the United States, a contract that leaves them completely unprotected."

Elsewhere the article refers to wages ranging from $3,000 for guarding an embassy to $12,000 for participating in riskier assignments. That explains why so many recruits from these poor countries are willing to go to Iraq. Poor training and lousy equipment explain why so many of them break their contracts and come back early.

Just one more way in which the perverse effects of the Iraq War and its peripheral operations ripple outward in concentric circles.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Las Americas   

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Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Detainee Abuse, Kurdish Edition

According to Human Rights Watch, detainees in Iraqi Kurdistan are held in overcrowded and unhygienic facilities, and are routinely subjected to torture, including electric shock and beatings with cables. Among the prisoners are suspected insurgents taken in US-Iraqi raids, which raises the question of whether these are outsourced interrogations.

To their credit, the Kurds cooperated with HR Watch, and have taken steps to address some of the abuses, although HR Watch qualifies the measures so far as inadequate. But I've long suspected that the myth of the Kurdish "good guys" is really just a cover for a little corner of stability that we desperately need in Iraq, both now and in the longterm. With time, we'll certainly find out more about just how much that stability has cost.

Update: Here's a link to the report

Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   Iraq   

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Friday, June 29, 2007

The Ballad Of The Green Berets

I got to this article kind of late last night, so I linked to it without posting, but it really warrants some closer attention. It ostensibly focuses on how the military leadership of the Special Operations command will soon be rotated out, resulting in the appointment of senior officers who are committed to returning to traditional 'indirect' special operations tactics. But it's actually a pretty severe indictment of the ways in which the Bush administration has misused Special Forces in particular, and the military in general, in response to the attacks of 9/11.

Despite their image, Special Forces have always placed a heavy emphasis on non-combat oriented interventions, especially with regard to counterinsurgency and counterterrorism:

Through the indirect route, support can be overt or covert. But it always is aimed at eliminating safe havens for terrorists. This is done by training foreign militaries, supporting surrogate forces or providing humanitarian, financial and civic backing to areas viewed as possible breeding grounds for terrorists.

But after 9/11, the Rumsfeld Dept. of Defense began to increasingly use Special Forces in combat operations, first in Afghanistan and then even more so in Iraq. In direct contradiction of the command's strategic doctrine, Bush and Rumsfeld have tried to "kill our way to victory".

There's a trend right now to trace our failure in Iraq to an Army culture that never learned the counterinsurgency lessons of Vietnam. But some blame must also go to a civilian leadership that ignored the tools we did have in the toolkit, or tried to apply them to tasks they aren't appropriate for.

The Bush administration's riposte to the attacks on 9/11 was driven more by political considerations than by strategic calculation. But while "Bring 'em on" and "Mission Accomplished" might have made for more virile, macho soundbites, the meticulous counterterrorism operations Bush and Rumsfeld mocked would have made for better policy. The proof lies in the comparison between the Philippines, where they were applied, and Iraq, where they weren't.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Iraq   

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Thursday, June 28, 2007

Measuring Success

Gen. David Petraeus' new strategy of going after "al-Qaeda in Iraq" in anticipation of an inevitable drawdown of American forces somehow manages to make perfect sense despite the fact that the justification he offers is at odds with everything we know about the situation on the ground.

On the one hand, getting rid of as many non-Iraqi bad actors before we ourselves pull up stakes seems like a solid first step towards re-Iraqifying the civil war. It would also be madness to allow the jihadists -- who have undoubtedly taken advantage of the chaos and violence in Iraq to recruit and train new operatives -- to consolidate their strategic gains after we've left.

But Petraeus seems to be suggesting that the violence taking place in Iraq is all the result of foreign agitators, and that eliminating them will eliminate sectarian violence as well:

The emphasis on Al Qaeda, described by commanders in interviews here this week, marks a shift in focus from Shiite Muslim militias and death squads in Baghdad. It reflects the belief of some senior officers in Iraq that the militias probably will reduce attacks once it becomes clear that a U.S. pullout is on the horizon...

Al Qaeda's attacks against Shiite religious sites and civilians brought the Shiite militias into the conflict last year, Petraeus said. Reducing the threat of Al Qaeda will reduce the militia threat, he added.

Of course, the "Golden Mosque narrative" has already been debunked, so while the campaign against foreign agitators is strategically sound, it's just not for the reasons given.

This little nugget, on the other hand, better explains some of the urgency behind the shift:

The fight involves the kind of high-intensity operations that play to U.S. strengths. It pits American forces against an opponent that the U.S. public already considers an enemy, and provides clear "metrics" for measuring success.

After largely steering away from body counts of insurgents for most of the Iraq war, U.S. officials recently have been reporting the number of militants killed in operations against Al Qaeda.

Now, we already know what happens to the logic of these kinds of "metrics" because we've seen them before. If the US military is targeting Viet Cong al-Qaeda, then anyone it engages becomes, by definition, Viet Cong al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, body counts get inflated by any innocent bystanders who happen to get caught in the crossfire.

For the time being, Petraeus' team is avoiding overly optimistic appraisals. It will be interesting to see how much that changes as we approach September.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

President Bush's Revolutionary Guard

Most of the jaw-dropping revelations from Seymour Hersh's latest article detailing Maj. General Antonio Taguba's investigation of the Abu Ghraib scandal have already been circulated widely. Certainly, the fallout the investigation had on Taguba's career is a tremendous injustice, and the possibility that Rumsfeld and the White House knowingly lied about when they first learned of the abuse ought to be investigated by Congress.

But what I found as shocking and perhaps more significant is the extent to which, according to Hersh's sources, the Bush administration has resorted to the use of rogue intelligence units that respond not to a chain of command subject to oversight and regulation, but to the verbal -- hence deniable -- command of the Sec. of Defense and the President. Here's Hersh:

...Shortly after September 11th, Rumsfeld, with the support of President Bush, had set up military task forces whose main target was the senior leadership of Al Qaeda. Their essential tactic was seizing and interrogating terrorists and suspected terrorists; they also had authority from the President to kill certain high-value targets on sight. The most secret task-force operations were categorized as Special Access Programs, or S.A.P.s.

The military task forces were under the control of the Joint Special Operations Command, the branch of the Special Operations Command that is responsible for counterterrorism... In special cases, the task forces could bypass the chain of command and deal directly with Rumsfeld’s office. A former senior intelligence official told me that the White House was also briefed on task-force operations...

J.S.O.C.’s special status undermined military discipline. Richard Armitage, the former Deputy Secretary of State, told me that, on his visits to Iraq, he increasingly found that “the commanders would say one thing and the guys in the field would say, ‘I don’t care what he says. I’m going to do what I want.’ We’ve sacrificed the chain of command to the notion of Special Operations and GWOT”—the global war on terrorism.

Of course, we already know about this administration's secretiveness, as well as it's willingness to engage in illegal activity. And the use of deniable and even unseemly backchannels for "les raisons d'état" is nothing new.

But what Hersh is describing amounts to more than just a formal kidnapping and torture operation that serves "at the pleasure of the President". It suggests the creation of a parallel apparatus that operates so far off the radar that it exists outside the limits of institutional loyalty or control. This is tantamount to a personal secret police for use as the President sees fit.

For the time being, as far as we know, it only operates abroad. But there's a reason why this sort of rogue force is so repugnant to democratic principles. That's because the logic behind it, that of the primacy of national security over the rule of law, is an expansive one. And the limits on it tend to grow weaker with time.

It also raises a frightening question. What happens to Bush's secret police once he leaves office?

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Iraq   

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Balkanizing The Middle East

Usually, when I skim The Weekly Standard, the urge I feel to respond to their most flagrant diatribes dies down into a half-hearted, "What's the use?" before I even get done reading the thing. The more outrageous the assertions, the more quickly the urge to respond evaporates.

Oddly enough, though, an article that presents some unconvincing arguments against a policy proposal that I myself have trouble with, like Stephen Schwartz' critique of the Biden plan to partition Iraq, seems to do the trick.

Schwartz' main problems with the plan are that it's based on a rosy assessment of the partition of the former Yugoslavia, and that it rewards Sunni bad behavior by creating a moral equivalency between aggressor and victim.

I don't find his reasoning very compelling. My own problem with the plan has always been that its success depends on something that has never existed: A stable power-sharing arrangement among the three Iraqi constituencies. Whether across "soft" borders or within hard ones, if the willingness to set aside violence as a means of settling disputes isn't there, the plan won't work. And imposing a ceasefire from above will not only be near-impossible. It will further exacerbate Iraqi resentment of the occupying powers.

That said, the entire region from Pakistan to the Horn of Africa seems to be reaching a critical mass of violent instability right now, due in large part to the Bush administration's policies. If spreading the chaos was part of the neocon plan to provoke a final region-wide confrontation, they overlooked one important detail: the continued instability works more to our enemies' advantage than to our own. The porous borders and perpetual battlefields are being exploited by global jihadists to recruit and train the next generation of terrorists to broaden the conflict to North Africa and Western Europe.

Now, like it or not, the writing's on the wall: The era of inclusive solutions has come to a close. If you want a taste of things to come, just take a look at the world's response to the Palestinian civil war. And, as several people have already pointed out, there's an inherent contradiction in advocating for the partitioning of Gaza from the West Bank, while rejecting such a plan for Iraq. Or Lebanon, or Waziristan, or Somalia, et cetera ad infinitum.

None of which makes the Biden plan any more likely to succeed. Just more likely to be implemented. 

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Iraq   The Middle East   

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Monday, June 18, 2007

Moral Relativity

With all the recent headlines about Turkey and the PKK, this is the first time I've seen an actual interview with a PKK leader. Michael Howard of The Guardian spoke to Cemil Bayik, one of the PKK's two chiefs, who had this to say about his group:

Mr Bayik said the PKK, which began life 30 years ago advocating a pan-Kurdish Marxist-Leninist state, was no longer a separatist movement. "We are not looking for independence, we are not even looking for federalism like the Iraqi Kurds have. The solution lies in granting the Kurds of Turkey language and cultural rights and freedom of speech."

He also denied that the group targeted civilians, and declared that they would welcome dialogue to resolve their conflict with Turkey.

According to most accounts I've seen, Turkey's record on the Kurds is pretty bad, and although Ankara has undertaken some reforms (mainly due to EU pressure), they've been pretty half-hearted. On the other hand, the US and EU have both listed the PKK as a terrorist group.

So there you have it. Looks like the final betting line on this one is "Pick 'em."

By the way, talk about a byline: Michael Howard in the Qandil Mountains. Indeed.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Sunday, June 17, 2007

Think Locally, Act Globally?

I'm not sure what to make of this survey from the recently released Pentagon report on security in Iraq. When asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement, "I feel safe and secure in my neighborhood", 77 percent of Iraqis replied that they agreed. On the other hand, only 32 percent agreed with the statement, "I feel safe and secure outside of my neighborhood."

Here's a graphic breakdown of the results, province by province (p. 26):

Unfortunately, the same question wasn't asked in any previous versions of the report, so there's no way to compare the results over time. A similar question that was asked both in this month's report and the one from March, though, was "How would you describe the tensions in your neighborhood today?" vs. "How would you describe the tension in the country today?" The contrast between perceptions of local tension and national tension was just as dramatic, even if both clearly trended towards less tension over the last six months. (The survey, which appeared in March's report, was conducted in January.)

Now if this were a sign of serious progress against sectarian violence, you'd expect not only for the responses to trend positive, but for the gap between local and national perceptions to narrow significantly. And they haven't. Besides, as the number of daily casualties indicates, violence against civilians has remained steady since the surge, even if the Pentagon no longer categorizes it as sectarian.

On the other hand, it could be confirmation that the partitioning of Iraq into ethnically cleansed communities -- within which one feels safe but outside of which one doesn't venture -- is already a fait accompli. And the fact that this has done nothing to reduce sectarian violence seems to undermine the argument, advanced notably by Joe Biden, that dividing the country into ethnically segregated regions will head off civil war.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Mad Libs

Here's a thought-provoking excerpt from a USA Today interview with Iran's top general:

Q: What is the current influence (in Iraq) from America?

A: The American influence has been very, very harmful to Iraq. There is absolutely no question that Americans are funding, arming, training, and even in some cases, directing the activities of extremists and militia elements.

It's more than disappointing given that one would think America would want the first Arab-Shiite state to succeed rather than wanting apparently to contribute to continued instability and serious security challenges.

The people they are arming are very, very serious thugs. Among them certainly are those who kidnapped the (five) British civilians the other day.

Ooops. My bad. That's an interview with Lt. Gen. Petraeus. And he was talking about Iran's influence in Iraq. Funny how the answer makes sense from both sides of the border, though.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Post-Occupation Preoccupation

Via Matthew Yglesias come Spencer Ackerman's objections to a post-occupation force in Iraq:

The maddening thing about a post-occupation is that the concept is thoroughly prudential. Who wouldn't want to hedge a bet for withdrawal, considering how awful the consequences of one could be? Unfortunately, if the consequences are really that bad, 40,000 troops won't be able to handle them, and the political pressure to reinforce them will be great... That will leave two choices: reoccupation or withdrawal. Better to strategise around those choices - thoroughly - than convince ourselves that something called a "post-occupation" exists.

Yglesias makes a good point of his own:

50,000 troops indicates a commitment to controlling the situation, but 50,000 troops is too few to control the situation, so why not surge another division in? Meanwhile Iraqis opposed to a US occupation (i.e., the vast majority of Iraqis) will still feel occupied, and the fact that the troop presence will have the imprimateur of the Iraqi government will do more to discredit that government than to legitimate the presence.

I would add that this kind of military presence also requires an enormous logistical and monetary investment. The very kind of investment that governments get tempted to protect by interfering in the internal affairs of the host country. Which in turn reinforces the idea of a meddling occupying power.

So yes, there are problems with this approach, but I still think it's the least bad option. I'd previously suggested that "disengaged bases" would only work under two conditions: The time horizon would have to be shortterm, and the rules of engagment would have to be strictly limited to border integrity and humanitarian crises.

I'll add a third, to cover Ackerman's, Yglesias' and my objections: That they be under the mandate and command of the UN or some other multi-lateral organisation. Not just a bogus Coalition of the Willing. A real peacekeeping force.

Update: Kevin Drum agrees with Matthew and Spencer and thinks leaving any residual force is a bad idea.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Sleight Of Hand

Any magician worth his salt knows the importance of misdirection to a successful trick. If you don't want people to pay attention to what's going on over here, give them something to think about over there. Well, with pressure growing from the army and public opinion to mount a cross-border incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan gave every indication today that he's an apprentice magician:

Erdogan said on Tuesday that there has been no resolution with the PKK domestically and, therefore, talk of an Iraq invasion was a long way off.

"Has the fight with the 5,000 terrorists finished domestically that we should now be talking about Iraq?" he said.

For its part, the PKK has reportedly offered a ceasefire if Turkey calls off military operations on the border. I wouldn't hold my breath on that one though.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Squeaky Wheel

If the US eventually does get around to dealing with the PKK problem, either directly or by proxy through the Kurds, this article on Turkish relations with Iran might explain why. It might explain the EU's current charm offensive towards Ankara as well.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   Iraq   Turkey   

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Monday, June 11, 2007

Two Out Of Three

And then, every so often, public opinion gets ahead of geopolitical gamesmanship. Like when a funeral for three Turkish soldiers killed in a PKK cross-border attack turns into a 10,000-person strong anti-government rally. The government's inability to stop the PKK attacks, which have killed at least two dozen Turkish soldiers since May 24, led mourners in three Turkish cities to call for its resignation. With the Turkish military already advocating a major incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan, the only thing that seems to be standing in the way is Prime Minister Erdogan's insistence that Parliament be consulted.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Monday, June 11, 2007

Just The Three Of Us

According to this article in The New Anatolian, Turkey has begun coordinating its military response to PKK attacks, including shelling of PKK positions inside Iraqi territory, with Iran. That might explain the end of the "See no evil, hear no evil" approach on the part of the Iraqi government, which presented a diplomatic letter of protest to the Turkish ambassador in response to this weekend's artillary barrage, which some military analysts say could only have been carried out from Iranian, and not Turkish, positions. Counter-intuitively, the protest might actually be a good sign, a way for the US and Iraq to signal to Turkey that they're willing to play hardball against the PKK now, so long as the Iranians aren't involved.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   Turkey   

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Monday, June 11, 2007

This Side Of The Horizon

Just a quick postscript to yesterday' post defending the idea of basing American troops in Iraq after a significant drawdown. My support for the idea would be contingent on three conditions:

  1. The time horizon was shortterm (ie. in the 3-5 year range), with an emphasis on keeping it shorter rather than longer.
  2. The rules of engagement were strictly limited to defending the Iraqi borders from incursions by uniformed, regular forces, and preventing a fullscale humanitarian crisis (ie. sectarian massacres).
  3. The current level of insurgent violence does not follow the troops to their "disengaged" bases.

In all likelihood, I'm being too naive by dismissing the Bush administration's Korean analogy too quickly. So just to be clear, I am not supporting the idea of permanent, over the horizon American military bases in Iraq.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Sunday, June 10, 2007

Going Long

The idea's been making the rounds for the past week or so, ever since President Bush compared Iraq to S. Korea. But Tom Ricks' WaPo article seems to make it official: the Pentagon brass is putting the finishing touches on a plan to maintain a longterm military presence based in Iraq after the bulk of American forces are drawn down. The timeframe for drawing down the lion's share of the troops just happens to be -- surprise, surprise -- the middle to end of 2008, ie. just in time to influence the presidential election.

Now, setting aside the Rovian timeframe and the boneheaded comparisons to the Korean Peninsula, the idea itself happens to be a good one, or at least the least bad one -- and I don't say that just because I happened to propose it back in February. It effectively ends what's known as the Iraq War by removing American forces from the line of fire of Iraq's civil war. It does so while securing our strategic interests in the country (namely, guaranteeing Iraq's territorial integrity and preventing a collapse into failed statehood). And it provides an insurance policy against any fullscale massacres and sectarian bloodletting that might follow a precipitous withdrawal.

Critics have pointed out that our presence catalyzes the Sunni insurgency and impedes the process of national reconciliation needed to put an end to sectarian violence. I would argue that by turning day to day governance and security issues over to Iraqis, they'll have their hands too full to worry about our garrisons tucked as far out of sight as possible. If not, the day will come sooner rather than later when an Iraqi government asks us to leave. So be it.

Hopefully those who oppose the war (and I count myself among them) will recognize this as a way to end it. Probably the quickest and safest way, too, both for American troops and Iraqi civilians.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Sunday, June 10, 2007

Moqtada And The Kurds

Since he came out of hiding in the end of May, Moqtada al-Sadr has tried to re-position himself as a leader of national unification. Until this weekend, that consisted mainly of reaching out to the Sunni insurgency in an effort to undermine the governing coalition of Nouri al-Maliki. But today al-Sadr showed both his political skill and opportunism by taking advantage of the conflict between Turkey and the PKK to broaden his nationalist appeal.

Here's how he condemned the Turkish bombardment of Iraqi Kurdistan, according to an AP dispatch:

We will not stay silent in the face of these transgressions because our faith and our nation call upon us to defend Iraq and every inch of its territory, which we consider to be holy.

Meanwhile, Le Monde quoted him as declaring, "The Kurdish people are part of Iraq, and it is our duty to defend them." (Translated from the French.)

It's a clever move, not only because it reinforces his new image of a leader who transcends the sectarian divide. It also "Iraqifies" the problem at a time when the US was trying to localize it to the Kurdish north. What's more, the added attention can only exacerbate what is a thorny issue for everyone involved, but especially for the US. Should the crisis escalate, it will ultimately force our hand: either we choose sides between the Turkish and the Kurds, or else we wade into the middle of another shooting war in Iraq.

Either way it adds problems to America's Iraqi plate, which only strengthens Moqtada's hand.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Saturday, June 9, 2007

The Quiet Tip

There were a number of reasons I'd come to believe that nothing really dramatic would happen on Turkey's border with Iraq. Not least of which is that any attack against the PKK bases -- whether by the Kurds, the Americans or the Turks -- is likely to do more harm than good.

But also because it seemed like the parties involved had found a way for everyone to save face while not really resolving the problem: Turkey would get to to respond to PKK attacks with "hot pursuit" cross-border operations and artillery strikes, and the US and the Kurds would look the other way and pretend nothing's happening.

Only trouble is, the Iraqi government just presented Turkey with a formal protest over today's early-morning artillery barrage on PKK positions in Iraq. So much for looking the other way.

There are still plenty of reasons for Turkey to forego a full-scale invasion. But they'll lose their dissuasive power if the Kurds try to tie their hands, while refusing to clean out the PKK themselves.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Thursday, June 7, 2007

Heading For The Border

The trend in the press as the day went on was to downplay early reports of a sizable Turkish incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan. By the evening, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had denied the rumors, and stated that any pre-meditated invasion would need to be presented to and approved by the Turkish parliament. At the same time, however, the Turkish military declared what it called "security zones" in three southeastern Turkish provinces. What exactly that means was not clear.

What is clear is that the Turkish military is crossing into Iraqi territory on a regular basis. A press officer at the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs told me that while she couldn't provide any details on these operations, they were no secret. She stated that they were limited to "hot pursuit", where Turkish units engaged by PKK guerillas in Turkish territory subsequently followed them when they retreated back into Iraqi territory.

The press officer stated that this was in accordance with international law, under the legal doctrine of "hot pursuit". The doctrine itself originates from the Law of the Seas, and pertains to a state's right to pursue foreign vessels into international waters for violating laws and regulations in its territorial waters. Its application to ground operations, on the other hand, is far from a settled matter. Some people have used it to argue for American military forces following Iraqi insurgents into Syria, for example, but the argument is not universally accepted.

I doubt we'll hear much about it in Turkey's case, though. For political reasons, the Kurdish Regional Government might not be able to root out the PKK itself. Same goes for the US. But neither do they want to alienate Turkey, with whom they both have strong ties. So it looks like they've decided that the best way to handle this prickly situation is to let the Turks take care of the PKK  and pretend as if nothing is happening.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Turkey   

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Wednesday, June 6, 2007

My Enemy's Enemy Is Not My Friend's Friend

Whether or not the Turkish army actually crossed the border into Iraqi Kurdistan today, one question that the recent tension on the border raises is, Why hasn't the US used its influence among the Kurds to have the PKK bases closed? The answer seems straightforward enough. As an unnamed State Dept official told Laura Rozen, "America has a multiplicity of problems in Iraq, and the PKK are not killing Americans."

There's also the fact that the Kurds have expertly cultivated contacts with Turkey (they're heavily involved in Kurdish development projects), Iran, and Israel, in addition to the US. So as things stand in Iraq right now, America probably needs the Kurds more than the Kurds needs America.

But there's another potential explanation, one that Seymour Hersh alluded to in a New Yorker article last November. Because there's another Kurdish guerilla group, closely affiliated with the PKK, that uses northern Iraq as a base to launch attacks across the border. Not the border with Turkey. The border with Iran.

It's called PJAK, the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan, and it's made up of Iranian Kurds. And according to Hersh, the group has received training and support from both the US and Israel as part of the covert effort to destabilize the Iranian government.

As usual, Hersh's claims have been denied by the Israeli, American and Turkish governments. But it's something to consider when trying to make sense of why this whole problem wasn't resolved a long time ago.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Hot Pursuit

According to Turkish "security officials" cited in an AP report, hundreds of Turkish special forces supported by thousands of regular troops crossed into Iraqi Kurdistan in a "hot pursuit" operation against PKK guerillas who fired on a Turkish patrol from within Iraqi territory. Although Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul and an Iraqi military commander in charge of border control denied the report, the unnamed officials stood by the claim. The forces reportedly pursued the guerillas a few miles inside the Iraqi border, and were back at their base within Turkish territory by the end of the day.

I've been doing some research on the Turkey-PKK conflict in preparation for an article I'm working on, and it actually turns out that this sort of tension on the border is almost a yearly event. Every spring, the PKK mounts an offensive, and the Turkish army masses troops on the border in an effort to fight it back.

During the nineties, when the Kurdish north enjoyed autonomous status, the Turkish army conducted cross-border incursions on several occasions. In 1995, for instance, 35,000 Turkish troops supported by armored divisions and helicopter cover, crossed into Iraqi territory to attack the PKK camps located in the mountainous border region.

To sum up, the potential consequences of an outbreak of hostilities between Turkey and the Kurds are all very damaging to regional stability and American interests in the Iraq theater. That means there are a lot of disincentives to anything actually happening. This is still one to watch. But the fact that for the time being all the right people are denying today's report is an encouraging sign.

Update: According to a report in The New Anatolian, two Turkish military helicopters, one that was either hit by enemy fire or developed a mechanical problem and another that provided cover, were forced to land inside Iraqi territory on Monday:

"Iraq Kurdish officials said there were no Kurdish forces or a base in 'the very remote area" but local commanders were asked by Erbil to extend any assistance required by the Turkish military."

Which leads me to believe that some sort of deal for limited cross-border operations has been struck, as long as everyone denies they've ever taken place.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Tuesday, June 5, 2007

The Threat Of Protracted Conflict

It's a bit long, but if you have the time and inclination, give Steven Metz's monograph, "Rethinking Insurgencies", a read. It's a brilliant analysis of how 21st century insurgencies differ from 20th century ones, how America's post-9/11 counterinsurgency models are all based on the latter rather than the former, and what an effective response to today's insurgencies would look like.

Metz claims that various historical pressures, including globalization and communication advances, have weakened states' ability to provide security and a cohesive identity to their citizens, as well as meet rising economic expectations. This has in turn created a proliferation of power vacuums. So whereas "old" insurgencies sought to seize areas controlled by the state, "new" insurgencies compete for uncontrolled spaces that the state has been forced to vacate.

Another distinction: old insurgencies were usually binary (the rebels vs. the state) with support from outside sponsors, whereas new insurgencies exist in complex, multi-party environments (militias, criminal organizations, multi-national corporations, ngo's and international media) that Metz compares to violent markets. It's not surprising then that the goal of total victory represented by marching through the capitol city and seizing the reins of state power has now been replaced by that of simply dominating the competition (ie. market share).

Because insurgencies often do mutate into economic enterprises, in particular organized crime syndicates (see Colombia), there are often incentives for maintaining them as a perpetual status quo (see Colombia). But Metz argues that the prolonged violence and breakdown in order they provoke poses a much greater threat to American interests than integrating insurgents into a sustainable power-sharing arrangement:

Given this, the U.S. goal should not automatically be the defeat of the insurgents by the regime (which may be impossible, particularly when the partner regime is only half-heartedly committed to it), but the rapid resolution of the conflict. In other words, a quick and sustainable outcome which integrates most of the insurgents into the national power structure is less damaging to U.S. national interests than a protracted conflict which leads to the complete destruction of the insurgents. Protracted conflict, not insurgent victory, is the threat.

Metz goes on to identify economic development, job creation and women's empowerment as key aspects of an effective counterinsurgency campaign. But he acknowledges that what he's proposing resembles social re-engineering more closely than war. Which is why he warns that "...the United States should only undertake counterinsurgency support in the most pressing instances."

This kind of analysis would have come in handy four years ago, before the start of our misguided Iraq debacle. But it's still pretty timely in light of this Robert Dreyfuss article in The American Prospect describing a broad "Iraqi nationalist coalition" that's in the formative stages right now. If Metz is correct, it might well be our best chance to limit the damage we've done there.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Iraq   

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Monday, June 4, 2007

Checkpoint Roulette

With all the talk about Turkish troops massing on the border with Iraqi Kurdistan, it's pretty easy to forget about the Turkish troops that are already in Iraqi Kurdistan. 1,357 of them to be exact, a majority of them special forces. And they've been there under a special arrangement between the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the US, and Turkey ever since 2003.

This past weekend, a carload of them dressed in civilian clothes got into a tense standoff with Peshmurga forces manning a checkpoint in Sulaimaniyah. The Kurds backed off once the Turkish forces identified themselves, and both sides later agreed that it was a simple misunderstanding. But it's the kind of misunderstanding that, given the current situation, could prove disastrous.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Monday, June 4, 2007

The Boiling Point

According to a RIA Novosti dispatch, the EU has given its "tacit support" for a Turkish incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan to attack the PKK camps located just ten miles in from the border:

Speaking after their meeting with [Turkish Foreign Minister] Gul, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, and Olli Rehn, the EU enlargement commissioner, neither condemned nor openly supported the plan. Renh said, however, that the EU was definitely on Turkey's side where counterterrorism was concerned.

It's worth noting that an AP dispatch quoted Steinmeier as saying only that he "did not get the impression that Turkey would stage an incursion." The same AP report describes a PKK attack on a military outpost in Southeastern Turkey that killed seven soldiers (other reports put the toll at eight), an attack that can only serve to underline the Turkish case for a cross-border raid.

So, what would a Turkish attack on Iraqi territory mean? The simple answer is big trouble, for just about everyone involved. The Kurdish Regional Government has made it clear that it would respond to any Turkish attacks, both in Iraqi Kurdistan and in Turkey, meaning a cross-border raid could turn into all-out war. Should things escalate, not only would it risk destabilizing the only relatively peaceful region of Iraq, it could also threaten the "Surge", which includes a sizable detachment of Kurdish Peshmurgas deployed to Baghdad, who would presumably be recalled if needed.

Significantly, in an attempt to shore up his weakening domestic political standing, Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki has thrown his support behind the Kurds. But that could end up antagonizing Iran and Syria, both of whom, like Turkey, have concerns about how Kurdish autonomy might impact their own Kurdish minority populations. It also could spell trouble for future Sunni cooperation with a Maliki-led coalition.

Finally, a Turkish attack on Iraqi Kurdistan would spell major trouble for American-Turkish relations, which are already heavily strained as a result of our having done nothing to address the PKK issue for the past four years.

To underline just how astonishing that is, we're talking about a secular Muslim country that's been a member of NATO since 1952, with a legitimate claim against what amounts to state-harbored terrorists. In other words, exactly the kind of country that in principle we should be treating like an ally. Instead, we're treating them like a red-headed stepchild, all due to the perverse calculus that is our failed Iraq policy.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Friday, June 1, 2007

Getting Out Of Dodge

A Turkish operation in Iraqi Kurdistan may or may not happen. Tensions are high on the border, but they've been high before and that didn't prevent everyone involved from walking things back from the brink. But as Henri Barkey points out in The National Interest, a number of political factors on the Turkish domestic scene are combining to pressure the government towards a hardening of their position vis à vis not only the PKK, but also the Kurdish Regional Government seen as harboring them.

Should Turkey decide to pursue the PKK into Iraqi territory, only one outcome would be worse than Turkish and Kurdish forces engaging in open battle. And that would be American forces getting caught in between them. Which might explain why Coalition Forces just handed over security responsibilities for the three Kurdish provinces in Northern Iraq to the Kurdish Regional Government.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Iran's Iraq Strategy, And Ours

It's already clear that the War in Iraq has been a boon to the shortterm strategic interests of our two most prominent adversaries in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, al-Qaeda and Iran. As for the former, its Iraqi operations aren't likely to outlast our presence over there by very long. All indications are that they have already begun to wear out their welcome. Even if they do manage to maintain some sort of staging area in the shadows of an eventual failed state, their goal of installing a fundamentalist Sunni theocracy in Shiite-dominated Iraq doesn't stand a snowball's chance in hell.

But what about Iran? Assuming that our rivalry with them will play a determinant role in regional geopolitics in the near future, and assuming that Iranian influence is essentially destabilizing and should be contained (both reasonable assumptions, in my opinion), their strategic goal in a post-occupation Iraq -- and Afghanistan -- is a question of vital importance. And yet, it's increasingly clear that it's a question that America's war planners don't have an answer for.

For good reason. The Iranian position in a post-occupation Iraq is far from certain. It's a mistake to assume that because Iraq is Shiite-dominated, Iran's influence is guaranteed. Of the two major Shiite blocks engaged in a power struggle verging on a civil war in the South, one of them, the Sadrists, are openly hostile to Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs. The other, SIIC (formerly SCIRI) while heavily supported by the Iranians, has increasingly begun to align itself with Ayatollah al-Sistani, the powerful Najaf cleric who also opposes Iranian interference.

Here's how Lt. Gen. Petraeus put it in an Army Times interview last week:

As to the Iranians’ strategic goal in Iraq, Petraeus said he isn’t sure whether the Iranians themselves know for certain.

“They have to be a tiny bit conflicted,” he said. “They can’t want a failed state. This is a Shi’a democracy [and] the first Arab Shi’a-run state. They can’t want it to fail, even though they are Persian. They certainly suffered greatly at the hands of Iraq. But with the kinship and the relationships they have with so many of the Iraqi leaders, they can’t want it to completely fail.”

On the other hand, as long as American troops remain in Iraq, ie. as long as Iraq remains exclusively our problem, Iran has a clear tactical interest in prolonging the violence. Again, Petraeus:

“They don’t want us to succeed, certainly,” he said. The Iranians would prefer that the U.S. be “seized” with the war in Iraq, perhaps to divert American attention from Iran’s nuclear ambitions or its activities in the northern Arabian Gulf, he added.

The same logic holds true true in Afghanistan. According to McClatchy, despite their quiet support of the invasion that rid them of their sworn enemies, the Taliban, as well as close ties with the Karzai government, the Iranians have recently begun funneling weapons to the Taliban insurgents in the southern province of Helmand:

Iran, they said, appears to be sending a warning that it can raise the cost to the United States and its allies in Afghanistan and elsewhere if the Bush administration continues pressing Iran to halt its suspected nuclear-weapons program and its support for Shiite militias in Iraq and radical groups in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and elsewhere.

"They do want to bleed the United States and its allies," said a U.S. intelligence official who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "What you are seeing now is potentially only a small taste of what could be done."

Take away our presence, however, and Iran's tactical interests melt away, while its strategic dilemma becomes all too clear. Faced with the possibility of being surrounded by failed states on both sides, Iran would have little choice but to accept that for the time being, their regional interests actually converge with our own, ie. some sort of power-sharing arrangement in Iraq, and a strong central government in Afghanistan.

Just another example of how our presence in Iraq stands in the way of the goals we're trying to achieve there.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Not So Friendly Spat

More rumblings on the border between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. According to a report from Gulf News, the Turkish army has continued its buildup on the Iraqi border, moving 20 tanks into position:

Speculation about an imminent incursion into Iraq has grown since Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said last week he saw eye to eye with the army over possible military action, despite unease in the United States, Turkey's NATO ally, about such a move.

Also, I linked to a news item yesterday about a couple of American fighter jets that "accidentally strayed" into Turkish airspace, also on the border with Iraqi Kurdistan. But according to this article in Middle East Times, it wasn't an isolated incident:

Turkey Tuesday warned its NATO ally the US against repeating (sic) violations of Turkish airspace at the border with Iraq, threatening unspecified action.

The warning followed violations by two US F-16 warplanes May 24, which some Turkish media described as a deliberate attempt at intimidation as Ankara discusses whether it should conduct a military incursion into northern Iraq to strike at Turkish Kurd rebels based there.

Turkey presented a formal diplomatic letter of protest, and Prime Minister Erdogan warned that "If this happens again ... if this takes a different dimension, what we will do is obvious." Obvious, that is, in the sense that no one's quite sure what he means.

This is really kind of mind-boggling. Turkey's been pressuring us to address the PKK bases in Iraqi Kurdistan for years now. There's been a shooting war on the Turkish side of the border for months. The whole area is on high alert. And our idea of an appropriate response is to buzz Turkish airspace?

Does "Keep your fingers crossed" count as an Iraq policy?

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Dept. Of Unintended Consequences

I'm trying to avoid too much Iraq War posting, because it's an easy rut to fall into. But here's a story from Inter Press Service that points out yet another potential pitfall of the Baghdad Surge: By deploying effective and neutral Kurdish military units to the capital, the Surge threatens to draw them into the sectarian violence between Shiites and Sunnis. According to the article, they've already been involved in some tense standoffs with the Sadrist Mahdi militia. The danger is that an eventual grudge match might spread to Kirkuk.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Next Best Thing

There's a lot of complicated political maneuvering going on right now among Iraqi Shiite factions, with the major poles of religious authority being Tehran (ie. Ayatollah Khameini) and Najaf (ie. Ayatollah al-Sistani), and the major firepower concentrated in the hands of SIIC (formerly the Iran-leaning SCIRI) and al-Sadr's Mahdi Militia.

Of course, by now we're all used to thinking of Moqtada al-Sadr as an anti-American agitator, ie. our enemy. But according to this analysis by Babak Rahimi on the Jamestown Foundation site, he just might be our best shot at averting a worst-case scenario in Iraq. Because while SIIC has advocated for a Federalized Iraq with a powerful Shiite region in Basra, al-Sadr used his reappearance yesterday to call for a broad Shiite-Sunni "reform and reconciliation project":

'I say to our Sunni brothers in Iraq that we are brothers and the occupier shall not divide us. They are welcome and we are ready to cooperate with them in all fields. This is my hand I stretch out to them,' he said.

His call came a few days after Shiite leaders from Sadr's east Baghdad stronghold met with Sunni tribal sheikhs from western Iraq. Both sides promised to work together for national reconciliation and against extremism.

This is the very kind of coalition that the Maliki government has been unable to create in anything but name only. Should al-Sadr succeed, he'll have managed to endrun not only Maliki and SIIC, but also Petraeus and Bush.

There's still a lot standing in his way, not least of which is al-Sistani's contempt for his firebrand style and political ambition. But keep your eyes on this. It's the next big story that could still come out of Iraq.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Cleaning House

One of the dangers of a situation as complex as the multi-faceted Iraqi civil war is that what seems like a lethal strike might actually turn out to be a helping hand. Take this AP dispatch describing a raid on Moqtada Al-Sadr's Baghdad stronghold in which American and Iraqi forces captured the leader of a secret cell specializing in EFP attacks. From that, you might assume that the raid struck a blow against al-Sadr and his Mahdi militia.

The thing is, the description of the cell matches the one Lt. Gen. Petraeus gave in an Army Times interview the other day of a network of "Sadrist special ops" units being trained covertly in Iran:

...“The guys that did the Karbala attack are part of this network. It is a Sadr special operations attack.”

However, he said, “I don’t think we have anything that shows that Sadr approved it [or] was involved in it.” 

These cells have become a major focus of American anti-militia operations, both in Baghdad and Basra. The question is, are they Sadrist operatives? Or renegade units that Iran has lured away from al-Sadr's chain of command? Until we can answer that question, there's no way of knowing whether we're boxing al-Sadr in or simply doing his laundry for him.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Moving The Lines

It seems to be the consensus among liberal bloggers that Congressional Democrats could have played it a lot tougher on the Iraq War funding bill, since public opinion was overwhelmingly on their side of the issue. I'm going to go out on a limb here and propose that the consensus is wrong.

Now, don't get me wrong. I think that despite areas of progress, the Iraq War is globally headed towards disaster, if it isn't already there yet. And I think that policy-wise, now's the time to get our forces out of there, despite the Iraqi bloodletting that might follow.

But even if the American public by and large agrees with that, I don't think the Democratic Party has sufficiently rehabilitated its national security image (rightly or wrongly deserved) to be able to close the deal on this one without opening itself up to a major pr backlash. Sometimes demand for the product isn't enough. You need to generate trust for the salesperson, too.

Two things will need to happen before the Democrats can safely push this through. First, they need to establish a more pro-active national security "brand identity". That means a comprehensive program that calls for more than just withdrawing troops.

And second, I'm afraid things will have to get a bit worse over there. As things stand, there are still too many (admittedly unrealistic) longshot chances for progress that have yet to be ruled out by events on the ground. Every last one of them will come back to bite Democrats on the ass should they succeed in forcing a troop withdrawal on a defiant Bush administration.

This standoff advanced the lines of the debate dramatically, and it's unfortunate that the Democratic base, disappointed as it might be, should turn on the leadership so stridently. Bush will have to request more funds come September, by which time reality will have caught up to the illusions he's trying to peddle. More importantly, the Congressional GOP will provide cover for a more forceful endgame.

Tragically, hundreds more American soldiers and Iraqi civilians will die in the meantime. But we're closer now to putting an end to the war than we were six months ago. And that's progress.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

All Roads Lead To Tehran

In an exclusive interview with Army Times, Lt. Gen. David Petraeus categorically declares that Iran is deeply involved in training and funding Iraqi insurgents and militias, and that it's inconceivable that Supreme Ayatollah Khameini could be kept in the dark about the "massive operation".

According to Petraeus, over the past few years Iran's Quds Force has trained "secret cells" of "Sadr special ops" in Iran. One of these cells was responsible for the highly sophisticated January 20th raid in Karbala that left five American soldiers dead. In addition, Iran has funded Iraqi Shiite militias, and to a lesser extent Sunni insurgents, to the tune of "hundred of millions of dollars".

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the interview is that despite all of the intelligence we've managed to gather on Iran's covert operations, Petraeus confesses to having no clue about Iran's longterm strategic goal for Iraq. Given that by all accounts we're already engaged in a proxy war with Tehran, that would seem like an important detail to nail down.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Monetary Policy

Back in March I noticed a graphic from the State Dept's Iraq Weekly Status Report that charted the volume of American dollars sold in the Iraqi Central Bank's currency auction (denoted by the blue line). What caught my attention was the dramatic decline in dollars sold beginning in early-November 2006, a trend that didn't reverse until late-January 2007. (The pronounced "W" in the center of the graph.)

I suggested at the time that the November date corresponded to the mid-term elections that many saw as a referendum on the Iraq war, and the January date to Bush's State of the Union address where he announced the Baghdad Surge. The idea being that Iraqis might have decided to hold onto their (stable) greenbacks until America's continued presence in securing the country was reaffirmed.

Here's what that same chart looks like in this week's report

In case you're having trouble reading the fine print, volume of dollars sold has roughly halved (from $90 million to $48 million per day) in the past ten days.

It'll be interesting to see what happens to that number now that Congress has folded on including a withdrawal timetable in the Iraq war funding bill. From the looks of things, though, not much has changed in terms of Iraqi confidence in their country's ability to maintain stability in the absence of an American presence.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Good Money After Bad

Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq, did his best to show Iraq reconstruction some love today in Congressional testimony:

“The reconstruction program in Iraq has been fraught with challenge, a mixture of success and failure, shortfalls and successful projects achieved,” Bowen told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

He pointed to the security situation and the fact that Iraq is being rebuilt "virtually under fire" as the principle reasons for ballooning costs and missed deadlines. But Chairman Tom Lantos was having none of it:

“It is simply outrageous that we are mired in the same mud of incompetence that we got stuck in last year and the year before that,” panel Chairman Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) said. “But knowing the administration’s abysmal track record on Iraq reconstruction planning, this is no surprise.”   

Lantos also lashed out at countries that have failed to fulfill their donor pledges to Iraq reconstruction, which seems odd to me. After all, who in their right mind would hand money over to a reconstruciton project that we're running? Even we've stopped doing it. I don't see how we can expect them to start.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Is Bad Publicity Really Always Good Publicity?

Did the Pentagon ban YouTube and Myspace for troops in Iraq because of bandwidth constraints, as they claimed? Or was it maybe, just maybe, because of content? You be the judge.

Via The New York Nerd.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Dick's Got Company

Maybe it's just something inherent to the office, but it turns out Dick Cheney isn't the only Vice-President who's not so keen on the US and Iran discussing the situation in Iraq. Iraq's Sunni Vice-President, Tariq al-Hashemi, spoke out against the upcoming talks after participating in the Geneva-based World Economic Forum:

"It's not good to encourage anybody to talk on behalf of the Iraqi people on their internal and national affairs," al-Hashemi told reporters...

Al-Hashemi said he would have preferred that the subject of Iraq's stability was "tackled by Iraqis themselves."

"This is really damaging to Iraq's sovereignty," he said.

Unlike Cheney, however, al-Hashemi probably doesn't want to see the US and Iran at war over Iraq either.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Can We Afford Another Fallujah?

As a measure of how not only the situation in Iraq, but also the American military's recognition of the situation in Iraq have changed, compare and contrast these two articles regarding America's treatment of Moqtada al-Sadr.

Patrick Cockburn reports in The Independent that three years ago, the American military used an invitation to negotiate a settlement to the Najaf uprising in order to carry out an assassination attempt on al-Sadr's life. The attempt failed, and played a large role in determining al-Sadr's hostile and mistrustful stance towards the US occupation ever since:

The revelation of this extraordinary plot, which would probably have provoked an uprising by outraged Shia if it had succeeded, has left a legacy of bitter distrust in the mind of Mr Sadr for which the US and its allies in Iraq may still be paying. "I believe that particular incident made Muqtada lose any confidence or trust in the [US-led] coalition and made him really wild," the Iraqi National Security Adviser Dr Mowaffaq Rubai'e told The Independent in an interview.

Fast forward three years to the Baghdad "Surge", where the WaPo reports that the US is so concerned about not alienating Baghdad's sprawling slum known as Sadr City, it's been delicately negotiating all operations targeting militias within the neighborhood:

The U.S. military is engaged in delicate negotiations inside Sadr City to clear the way for a gradual push in coming weeks by more American and Iraqi forces into the volatile Shiite enclave of more than 2 million people, one of the most daunting challenges of the campaign to stabilize Baghdad.

So sensitive is the problem of the sprawling slum -- heavily controlled by militiamen loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr -- that Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, personally approves all targets for raids inside the Baghdad district, military officers said.

Clearly, this entire year of military operations in Iraq can be seen as an attempt to clean up some of the mess we've created over the course of the previous three. But if you think the military has renounced its more counter-productive knee-jerk reactions entirely, think again. From the same WaPo article:

If political avenues are exhausted, the U.S. military has formulated other options, including plans for a wholesale clearing operation in Sadr City that would require a much larger force, but commanders stress that this is a last resort.

The plan was referred to by an anonymous officer as a "second Fallujah plan." Presumably because the first one worked so well.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

After The Photo Op

One of the recurring themes of all the reports and audits of Iraqi reconstruction projects I've been sifting through has been the inability of Iraqi authorities to maintain infrastructure facilities once they were completed and handed over by American contractors. The problem is so pronounced, in fact, that the Iraqi government has actually refused to take possession of the great majority of completed projects. (Only 18% had been formally turned over by last July, with very few added since then.)

In some cases, the explanation was a lack of trained personnel to manage the facilities. In others, necessary parts were unavailable. One Army report cited "... a culture of maintenance that was gradually lost during the embargo years." Another GAO report pointed to higher-order issues, like the lack of "... clear institutional, legal, and regulatory structures and adequate financial management systems." (A polite way of saying the place is crooked as a re-used nail.)

This brings us back to two points that have been made before but that bear repeating. First, the planners of this war tended to envision Iraq as they wanted it to be, rather than as it was. But that refusal to grasp reality didn't stop after the initial invasion, as evidenced by the billions of dollars that have now been spent on projects that, quite predictably, can not be maintained.

Second, there's the question of metrics, and how to assess whatever progress we might have made in Iraq. Cutting the ribbon on a school, or hospital, or electric generator plant, makes great for a great photo op. But counter-insurgency wars are won or lost on whether the building's still in operation six months later. And by that measure, there's little doubt that we're losing this war.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Fine Print

As a sign of how well the transition to Iraqi security self-reliance is going, the State Dept's Iraq Weekly Status Report points to the fact that the Iraqi army began issuing US-made M-4's and M-16's to their troops this month. As always, it's the details that sting:

In order to account for the weapons issued, a series of biometrics, such as finger printing, eye retinal scans, and voice recordings are collected. Additionally, a photograph of the soldier with his weapon is taken, showing the serial number.

If that doesn't work, they can always handcuff the rifles to their wrists.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Hope The Brakes Don't Give Out

Here's a pretty decent summary of what's driving the tensions, and what's at stake, on the border between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. Something we often forget:

Cracking down on radical Kurdish elements, however, would be difficult for the K.R.G. [note: Kurdish Regional Government] to pursue since it is far from a unified governing force. The K.R.G. itself is divided between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (P.U.K.) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (K.D.P.), with each group commanding its own separate peshmerga forces. If the K.R.G. were to attempt to move against its own, it could result in the fracture of the Kurdish movement and the return to the violent infighting that has characterized recent Kurdish history in northern Iraq.

I'd add that the two major dissuasive influences on a Turkish military intervention, ie. US influence and EU membership negotiations, have both weakened considerably of late. The first due to Turkey's sense that America has not taken its regional interests to heart, or seriously pressured the Kurds to rein in the PKK. The second because of the growing perception (one reinforced by Sarkozy's election) that despite years of negotiations, promises, and Turkish concessions, the EU is going to welch on admitting Turkey after all.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Wheels Come Off

The Bush administration's Iraq policy has been reduced to crossing its fingers and hoping that come September, General Petraeus will bail them out with an assessment of the "Surge" that can buy them another 3-6 months. In the meantime, according to a briefing paper issued by Chatham House, an English public policy think tank, "It can be argued that Iraq is on the verge of being a failed state which faces the distinct possibility of collapse and fragmentation."

A common theme of the problems the report cites is multiplicity:

  • "There is not ‘one’ civil war, nor ‘one’ insurgency, but several civil wars and insurgencies between different communities and organizations..."
  • "Iraqi nationalisms exist, but one distinct ‘Iraqi’ nationalism does not..."
  • "The Iraqi government is not able to exert authority evenly or effectively over the country... At best, it is merely one of several ‘state-like actors’ that now exist in Iraq..."

This passage on the effect of the daily violence on Iraqi youth, as reflected in blogs and YouTube postings, was especially disheartening:

The change in the content of these blogs is remarkable. Barely a year ago, young Iraqis commonly talked about their desires to see the Americans leave and for a genuinely Iraqi political process to emerge. Now, bloggers tend to fall into one of two categories: they either wish the US to stay in order to prevent the final collapse into a ‘total’ civil war; or they wish the US to leave in order to allow the civil war to erupt fully – such is the level of sectarian-based hatred in Baghdad today...

A further outlet for Iraqi sectarianism now exists on YouTube. Postings by both Shi’a and Sunnis, calling for a whole range of barbarous acts to be committed against the other exist alongside a video catalogue of the worst atrocities inflicted upon Shi’a by Saddam’s regime and the murderous activities of Shi’a government-backed ‘death squads’.

Of course, after four years of "stuff happens", "dead-enders" and "last throes", we're all familiar with the Bush administration's standard operating procedure: Push back for six months against what is obvious to most objective observers, and then come up with a half-assed course correction to paper over what's already an outdated assessment.

But as things stand, there are really only two possible courses of action in Iraq: A massive military escalation accompanied by an American commitment to spend the next 5-10 years securing the country. Or an immediate withdrawal.

The first offers no guarantees of success. The second, the likelihood of failure. And both are, for the time being, politically impossible.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Beckett, Ionesco And The GAO

More on Iraq reconstruction, this time from from a report on Iraq's oil and electricity sectors released today by the General Accounting Office. The upshot? We've spent roughly $5.1 billion on the Iraqi oil and electricity infrastructure. There's still billions of dollars of work left to be done. And the results are disappointing, even judging by the modest goals we'd set.

Among the problems cited? Corruption (between 10 and 30 percent of refined fuels are diverted to the black market), poor coordination between the oil and electricity ministries that results in inefficient electrical output, poor security conditions that increase costs and reduce production, and the Iraqi government's lack of clear legal and regulatory structures, as well as financial accounting and management systems, which serve as a disincentive for foreign investment.

As to who's going to finance the work that still needs to be done, one thing is certain: It won't be us. According to the report, we've completed 88% of our oil projects, and should wrap the rest up shortly. And with the Iraqi oil revenue-sharing law in limbo, few countries or companies are willing to invest in Iraq's lucrative but unstable oil sector (although the Kurds have managed to strike a controversial deal with a small Norwegian company).

Like every official government document dealing with Iraq, this one contains its share of memorable, Theater of the Absurd passages. Here's my favorite:

With respect to our recommendation to establish an effective metering system, State commented that the installation and reading of retail electricity meters would be difficult in the present security environment... We agree with State’s comment...

Meter readers in Baghdad. Sheesh.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Just In Time

Oliver Willis wonders whether the new War Czar position is necessary, pointing out that between the Commander in Chief, Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and the Joint Chiefs, we should have things covered. I'd point out that he left out the National Security Advisor and Council, the Secretary of State (all reconstruction projects, including security-related ones, are coordinated out of the State Dept), and the Commanding Officer of Centcom.

That said, I think the length of that list makes more the argument for the appointment of a single-tasked coordinator of the war effort than against it. Yes, it adds a layer of bureaucracy to what is already a terribly confusing and confused inter-agency effort. But if that layer is a step above the compartmentalized moving parts, it might give a useful perspective on how to maximize efficiency.

Of course, at this point, there's very little upside to be gained from the position. It might come in handy, though, when it comes time to coordinate the disengagement and withdrawal.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

It's Time To Pull The Plug

It's late here, and I'm tired, and I'd wanted to go to bed. But this WaPo article on the Iraqi prison and detention system is worth a mention, even if it is really depressing. Maybe even because it's really depressing.

Because you'd think that it would occur to the people running the surge in Baghdad that if you apply a massive security sweep, you're going to wind up with quite a few more detainees than you had before. About 6,500 more, to be precise, between the Iraqi prisons and American military detention facilities. Which means, of course, that you're going to need more holding facilities.

But apparently, no one considered that possibility, because there's an enormous overcrowding problem, with single-person cells housing up to six inmates, and some detainees being held in facilities for convicts, where they wait up to three months for a habeas corpus hearing that's legally required within 24 hours. Reports of torture, abuse, and forced confessions are widespread. And there's little possibility for oversight due to the farflung and poorly administered system itself.

But even the belated solution, the construction of a prison facility in eastern Baghdad, isn't really one:

The new prison space is part of a massive project called the Rusafa Law and Order Complex, a fortified compound near the Interior Ministry building that, when finished, will include a courthouse and dormitories for lawyers and judges, within a guarded perimeter. The goal is to create a second Green Zone-style haven where authorities can push through the growing backlog of criminal cases.

"This represents a small step forward -- and it must be emphasized that this is merely a foothold -- on two fronts: the political will to embrace the rule of law and the capacity to render justice through secure and legitimate proceedings," U.S. Army Col. Mark S. Martins, senior staff judge advocate, said in a statement.

It's like the actor reading from his script while the scenery is falling down all over the set. I'm curious to see what the vote will be on Feinberg's bill tomorrow. It's supposed to not have a chance in hell. Just like the war effort itself.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Metric System

As you might have noticed, I've taken a bit of an interest in the administrative and accounting morass affectionately known as Iraq Relief & Reconstruction. Which means, among other things, sifting through some of the official State Dept and DoD publications mandated to keep tabs on the various projects that have been contracted. Here's something that caught my eye in the latest Weekly Reconstruction Report, from a description of an elementary school project in north Baghdad Province:

Lt. j.g. Robert McCharen, who is the Army Corps of Engineers officer in charge of the area, says the 23-classroom facility will be capable of handling up to 900 students, both boys and girls, ages 6 through 12. It also contains a 90-square-meter four-room guardhouse.

The gist of the article is that the new school will open "...a whole new chapter of opportunities..." for the community it serves by replacing one that was too far away to be of much use. To be fair, the story is an example of one of the better approaches to Iraq reconstruction: Relief funds made available to local military commanders to disburse according to the needs of the area under control.

And yet, there's still that four-room guardhouse, made necessary by the fact that the insurgency targets schools and teachers that "collaborate" with American forces. From a report in the Guardian titled "Iraq School Crisis":

More than 300 teachers and Ministry of Education employees were killed last year and 1,158 were wounded, the ministry reported. A U.N. report released last month said the killings continued "at an alarming level'' this year.

The attacks have paralyzed the government's plan to build 1,000 new schools this year and even forced it to close existing schools across the country, Hussein said.

The fact that these two reports appeared within two weeks of each other perfectly captures the hollow nature of our accomplishments (which are numerous) in Iraq.

One of the great failures of the Vietnam War was the use of metrics conceived not to accurately measure the war effort, but to register its every engagement as a "plus": Body counts, secured villages, controlled territory. All of them gave the illusion of progress, even while we were steadily losing any chance of victory in the theater of war itself.

The same thing has happened in Iraq. Supporters of the war, the few that remain, aren't wrong when they say that we often fail to appreciate the occupation's many accomplishments. What they fail to realize, though, is that in a realistic appraisal of the war effort, a schoolhouse built with an integrated guardroom doesn't go under the plus column.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Profiles In Courage

According to William Kristol, the Iraqi political class is more courageous than their American counterparts because, unlike the eleven GOP Congressmen who confronted President Bush about the Iraq War's impact on polling numbers last week, they risk assassination, not just electoral defeat. The obvious question being, Do Iraqi politicians count as part of the Iraqi political class?

Because Iraqi politicians have consistently postponed resolving just about all of the sticking points -- the Kirkuk referendum, the oil revenue distribution law, the amendments to the constitution that were promised in return for marginal Sunni participation in the electoral process -- that could potentially scuttle the entire Iraqi political experiment.

They've also managed to find the time, amidst all the last-minute planning for their two-month summer vacation, to sign on to a proposed bill calling for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.

As for Kristol's evidence of how well things are going in Iraq, it basically boils down to the observation, repeated twice, that children wave, smile and ask American visitors for candy on the streets of Baghdad.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

Smoke, But No Fire

With the Bush administration, "Where there's smoke, there's fire" is a pretty reliable rule of thumb. So when I saw an executive order last Wednesday disbanding the State Dept's Iraq Reconstruction Management Office (IRMO) and replacing it with the Iraq Transitional Assistance Office (ITAO), a short week following the release of a Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) audit critical of Iraq reconstruction efforts, it caught my eye. Throw in the fact that both the White House and a Republican Congressman have initiated oversight investigations of Stuart Bowen, the head of SIGIR, and you'll see why I titled a recent post, I Smell A Rat.

But in what might be a first for the Bush administration, the appearance of impropriety surrounding the executive order turns out to be a coincidence. IRMO, as a "temporary organisation", was limited by Federal statute to a period of three years. Since it was created by a National Security Presidential Directive on May 11, 2004, its mandate expired on May 10, 2007. Hence the Executive Order of May 9 creating the ITAO.

On the other hand, as for my initial question of whether the ITAO signals a phasing out of reconstruction aid, the answer is very clearly yes. Not only that, it's a phasing out that's been in the works since at least January 2006, when the Bush administration first announced its plan to wrap up major infrastructure reconstruction projects, shifting the emphasis instead to logistical training and institutional support for "Iraqi self-sufficiency".

In fact, since the initial $21 billion appropriated for Iraq reconstruction in 2003 (of which roughly $4 billion in outstanding contracts still remains), the amount of additional, non-security related reconstruction has been limited to roughly $1 billion, split between various funding streams, appropriated in 2006.

But even the idea that we heavily funded civilian and infrastructure reconstruction and are now ramping it down is misleading. Because a good deal of what's been called "reconstruction" has been diverted into security operations, ie. military infrastructure, force training, etc. Add to that the fact that the funding streams have been multiple and diverse, with various mandates and goals, and it becomes very difficult to keep things straight.

Which is where Stuart Bowen and SIGIR come in. Bowen is a longtime Bush loyalist, who served in the White House, and before that in various capacities on Bush's staff in Texas. Unlike other Bush loyalists, though, Bowen seems to have gotten the peculiar notion that he should actually do the job he was appointed to do. And wouldn't you know it, his audits on Iraq reconstruction have uncovered enormous lapses in oversight, poor procurement methods, and shoddy results.

Apparently that didn't go over too well, because last October, a hidden clause made its way into a military appropriations bill that would have ended SIGIR's mandate altogether come October 2007. Luckily, that clause was reversed just two months later, by a bill that tied its mandate to completion of a certain percentage of reconstruction contracts, effectively guaranteeing its existence through late 2008. But now Bowen finds himself the subject of two oversight investigations for misuse of funds, one by an executive branch ethics panel, and the other by the House Government Reform committee.

Compare that to the kind of support Alberto Gonzales still enjoys in the White House and you've got all you need to know about how the Bush administration operates. As he said himself, You're either with us or you're against us.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Friday, May 11, 2007

I Smell A Rat

Two days ago, the President issued an Executive Order basically replacing the existing State Dept. office overseeing Iraq reconstruction efforts with a new "transitional" office, whose mandate seemed to suggest a phasing out of Iraq reconstruction funding altogether. In a telephone interview with a State Dept press officer, I confirmed that the new office does in fact represent a policy of "...moving away from large infrastructure reconstruction to facilitate Iraq's transition to self-sufficiency."

I did some digging, and found this WaPo article which describes way back in January, 2006, the Bush administration's plans to draw down Iraq reconstruction funding, leaving whatever work remains to foreign donors and the Iraq government itself.

In and of itself, that seems pretty scandalous. But it gets worse. Because Wednesday's executive order follows directly on the heels of a scathing report from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) that blew holes in so-called "successful" reconstruction projects, and detailed continued "diversion" of reconstruction funds. That report was a follow-up to one last fall which documented the poor performance and lack of oversight in Iraq reconstruction assistance.

Almost by coincidence, the head of SIGIR, Stuart Bowen, is now under (a Republican-initiated) Congressional investigation for misuse of funds, and his oversight office has been scheduled to be closed come October.

So, why formally change bureaucratic structures? Why do it by executive order? Why do it now? And why the assault on effective oversight that's already brought wild abuses to light? Nothing in this administration's track record leads me to believe it's just a wild coincidence.

I'll keep digging. Stay tuned.

Update: According to the Public Affairs rep at SIGIR, the new office in the State Dept. doesn't limit SIGIR's oversight capacity or otherwise effect their work in any way. She also clarified that SIGIR's mandate is budget-determined. So according to current estimates, they will be in operation until December 2008. Finally, she had a firm and concise no comment to my questions regarding the Congressional investigation of Mr. Bowen.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Veto This!

For everyone following the legislative brinksmanship going on between Congress and the White House over a withdrawal timetable for our troops in Iraq, here's one bill that President Bush can't veto:

A majority of Iraqi lawmakers have endorsed a bill calling for a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops and demanding a freeze on the number of foreign troops already in the country, lawmakers said Thursday...

The bill would require the Iraqi government to seek approval from parliament before it requests an extension of the U.N. mandate for foreign forces to be in Iraq, al-Rubaie said. It also calls for a timetable for the troop withdrawal and a freeze on the size of the foreign forces.

As things stand, the only justification left for staying in Iraq is the very situation we caused by invading in the first place. Which I thought was the limit of pathetic. But it would be even more pathetic if the Iraqi government pulls the plug on the whole affair while Congressional Republicans are still wringing their hands and holding out for some good news come September. 

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Is The Fat Lady Singing?

I'm not sure what to make of this Executive Order, issued today, that establishes the "Iraq Transitional Assistance Office" within the State Dept. The new office will ostensibly assume any outstanding functions of the "Iraq Reconstruction Management Office". But the unmistakable emphasis is on a gradual phasing out of the "reconstruction" plank of the occupation:

The purpose of the ITAO shall be to perform the specific project of supporting executive departments and agencies in concluding remaining large infrastructure projects expeditiously in Iraq, in facilitating Iraq's transition to self-sufficiency, and in maintaining an effective diplomatic presence in Iraq. (Emphasis added.)

Now this could simply mean that American aid will from now on be channeled through the Iraqi government itself. But I doubt it, given how porously corrupt we know the Iraqi government is. At the same time I find it hard to believe that we're already preparing to ramp down infrastructure reconstruction aid.

I'll keep my eyes peeled for any coverage, but if anyone sees anything, pass it on, either through e-mail or comments.

Update: Here's a follow-up post about some interesting "coincidences" surrounding the timing of this Executive Order.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Rose-Tinted Glasses

According to the latest common wisdom, the Baghdad security surge is going to have to show some positive results come September -- October at the latest -- or President Bush will face the possibility of Congressional Republicans jumping ship on the Iraq War. The logic being, as Josh Marshall points out, that it's the latest possible date that they can save their hides for the 2008 elections.

As he also notes, it's also already been agreed that General David Petraues will offer a status report on the Purge come September. So, given that the Pentagon just notified ten brigades -- or 35,000 troops -- to prepare for deployment to Iraq come the fall, any guesses as to what kind of assessment Petraeus will come up with?

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Friday, April 27, 2007

The Good Guys

The Kurdish autonomous region is known for being the most peaceful part of Iraq. Unless, that is, you happen to be a woman accused of "immoral conduct". In which case, you might end up as charred remains on the outskirts of town, or shot dead, along with your married boyfriend, by your brother. And according to the latest report from the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq, the Kurdish regional government is doing very little to stop the proliferation of these "honor killings".

But that's not all:

The United Nations also expressed concern over the treatment of detainees in prisons run by Kurdish Asayish (security) forces, and over attacks on press freedom by the same shadowy organization.

"UNAMI continues to receive allegations of torture or ill-treatment of detainees in Asayish detention facilities," it said.

"The Kurdistan Regional Government continued to subject journalists to harassment, arrest, and legal actions for their reporting on government corruption, poor public services, and other issues of public interest."

Iraqi Kurdistan. It's the new Denmark.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Woulda Been, Coulda Been

Reading Bruce Riedel's latest article on al-Qaeda's resurgence in Foreign Affairs, I couldn't help but wonder how differently things might have turned out had George Bush concentrated on eradicating al-Qaeda and rebuilding Afghanistan in 2003, instead of invading Iraq. Because according to Riedel, Osama Bin Laden anticipated a much longer and costlier war in Afghanistan, and his strategy of drawing us in to bleed us out was dangerously thwarted by the ease and speed with which we defeated the Taliban and deprived him of a secure base of operations:

But thanks largely to Washington's eagerness to go into Iraq rather than concentrate on hunting down al Qaeda's leaders, the organization now has a solid base of operations in the badlands of Pakistan and an effective franchise in western Iraq. Its reach has spread throughout the Muslim world, where it has developed a large cadre of operatives, and in Europe, where it can claim the support of some disenfranchised Muslim locals and members of the Arab and Asian diasporas. Osama bin Laden has mounted a successful propaganda campaign to make himself and his movement the primary symbols of Islamic resistance worldwide. His ideas now attract more followers than ever.

It's a long article but well worth reading, as Riedel makes a number of points I've yet to see mentioned before. Among them:

  • That Bin Laden's new base in the Pakistani "badlands" actually facilitates recruitment and expands his global access through the Pakistani diaspora that enjoys lax travel restrictions between Pakistan and England;
  • That al-Qaeda fears the growth of Iranian regional influence and might try to provoke a war between the US and Iran with a well-disguised "false flag" attack, thereby using its two strategic enemies to destroy each other;
  • That if we effectively target its leadership and improve our public relations efforts in the Muslim world, there's no reason why al-Qaeda can't be neutralized in "short order".

Then there's this:

Iraq is, of course, another critical battlefield in the fight against al Qaeda. But it is time to recognize that engagement there is more of a trap than an opportunity for the United States. Al Qaeda and Iran both want Washington to remain bogged down in the quagmire.

Too bad no one's told the "independent Democratic senator from Connecticut".

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Bad For Business

You'll remember the series of articles I flagged a few weeks ago about tensions on the Turkish border with Iraqi Kurdistan. Since then, according to this Jamestown Foundation article, the Iraqi Kurds have reinforced their side of the border with Peshmerga units re-deployed from Mosul, heavy anti-aircraft machine guns, and armored vehicles:

Although most Turks and Kurds within their respective governments are eager to de-escalate and to resolve many issues through dialogue, a dangerous momentum may be building that both Turkey and the Iraqi Kurdistan region may not be able to resist if actions by both sides remain unchecked.

Fortunately, there remain significant disincentives to war on both sides. For the Turkish, the European Union accession process, which exposes them to a high level of scrutiny. And for the Kurds, the fact that the status quo works greatly in favor of their strategic calculations.

In addition, as the article points out, Turkey has found another method of exerting pressure on the Kurds. Namely, by re-routing their commercial traffic from the Kurdish frontier to Syria, thereby denying the Kurds of significant revenue in the form of collections tolls.

Which might go a long way to convincing them to crack down on the PKK, as Turkey has been demanding. Because as Laura Rozen's recent Mother Jones article made clear, more than anything else, the Kurds are businessmen.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iraq   

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Political Theater

A word about the Pentagon's decision to extend Iraq tours from 12 to 15 months, which comes on the heels of some units being rotated back to Iraq before completing a year of Stateside duty. You don't need to be a four-star general to know that when you place low-morale troops in high-stress theaters for extended tours of duty, you dramatically increase the risk of misdirected violence. A massacre along the lines of My Lai would be the final nail in our Iraq coffin, yet the Bush administration is putting all the pieces in place that make such a horrible event almost inevitable. Which won't prevent them from blaming a few "bad apples" if one does end up occuring.

It's worth noting that one dramatic difference between this war and the Vietnam War is that back then, there was a draft. So even though plenty of people like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney managed to avoid serving, the impact of that war domestically was felt more broadly than the current war.

The Pentagon is going through all these contortions to maintain troop levels that don't really exist, in order to avoid placing any burden on the civilian population (other than the massive activation of reserve units). None of this is a military necessity. It's a political necessity.

The Vietnam War became unpopular as quickly as it did because after the Tet offensive, people realized:

  1. That the war was not going as well as the government had claimed;
  2. That the stakes were not as high as the government had made them out to be;
  3. Because they no longer wanted to personally pay the price of a failed policy.

I think we've already seen number one with the Iraq War, although the Surge was designed to forestall it a bit. Number two shouldn't be long in coming.

The only way Bush can run out the clock until someone else takes office (and responsibility for the entire mess) is if he can keep number three from happening. And he's willing to break the military to do it.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Kurdish Connection, Pt. 2

Laura Rozen's got an article in Mother Jones about what purportedly began as a story about an American-Israeli effort to set up anti-Iranian covert operations in Iraqi Kurdistan, but turned out to be, after she followed up on the reporting, a story about the Kurds' effort to set up pro-Kurdish covert operations in Iraqi Kurdistan. Here's the money quote:

In the end, Yatom and Michaels’ business activities may well be evidence, as much as any covert U.S. interests, of the Kurds’ superb gamesmanship, pragmatism, and sense of opportunity—instincts honed to a fine art by a people that, lacking durable proximate allies, has learned how to cultivate the enemies of its enemies. (Emphasis added.)

The Israelis aren't the only ones who came calling bearing gifts in the hopes of winning influence with Kurds. You'll remember this article that I flagged last week [note: the link seems to be temporarily broken], which described contacts between the Kurds and Iranian intelligence and security operatives dating back to before the American invasion of Iraq.

Apparently, the Kurds had no problem saying yes. To everyone. As the Kurds' Washington DC representative put it, "Kurdistan is open for business."

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Rock? Meet Hard Place.

Two new developments on the border between Turkey and Iraq. First, a Turkish general publicly called for cross-border incursions into Iraq to flush the PKK out of their mountain bases:

"An operation into Iraq is necessary," Gen. Yasar Buyukanit said, pushing for permission to raid northern Iraq to fight Kurdish guerrillas despite strong opposition from the United States and Iraq against such unilateral action.

The call raises the pressure on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to take a harder line against Kurdish guerrillas and against the Kurdish leadership in northern Iraq, where the rebels are based and train.

And second, the American press seems to have caught wind of what's going on over there, since the above quote is taken from an article in USA Today. As for what's at stake, here's another quote from the same article:

"The PKK has huge freedom of movement in Iraq," Buyukanit said. "It has spread its roots in Iraq."

But Iraq's government is barely able to control its own cities. U.S. commanders, who are battling the Iraqi insurgency in the middle of the country, are stretched too thin to take on Turkish Kurds hiding in remote mountains near the frontier.

Washington repeatedly has cautioned Turkey against staging a cross-border offensive, fearing that it could destabilize the region and antagonize Iraqi Kurds, who are allied with the U.S.

Of course, that's not entirely true. Iraq's government might be barely able to control its own cities. But the Kurdish authorities haven't had much trouble keeping their own in line. The PKK is just a problem they haven't been too keen on addressing. And we need the Kurds too much to put their feet to the fire on it. So file this one under "Things That Haven't Gone Majorly Wrong In Iraq But Still Could".

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Iraq's Other Hot Border

Yesterday I mentioned that things are heating up on Turkey's border with Iraqi Kurdistan, with violent clashes breaking out over the weekend between the Turkish Army and the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK). Today, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, himself a Kurd, phoned Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to apologize for threats made in the press by Kurdish Provincial President Massoud Barzani.

That didn't prevent Erdogan from filing a formal diplomatic letter of complaint with the Iraqi government, threatening diplomatic and economic sanctions, as well as "other approaches", if nothing is done to rein in the PKK, which Turkey claims uses Iraqi Kurdistan as a base for launching attacks across the Turkish border.

The American press finally seems to be picking up on the story, with NPR posting a to-be-aired report titled "Turkey, Kurds Move Toward All-Out Fighting", with the following lede:

Western governments are struggling to restrain Turkey back from a possible cross-border incursion into northern Iraq, where tensions have escalated with Kurds.

For various reasons, including the headstart on self-government they got with the Autonomous Region and no-fly zones, as well as the relative homogeneous nature of their population, the Kurds have managed to avoid the chaos that's overrun the rest of Iraq. As a result, they tend to be left out of the media picture, or else portrayed as the "good" Iraqis.

But stable does not necessarily mean responsible. And between harboring the PKK, which is on the State Department's list of known terrorist organizations, and developing close security contacts with Iranian intelligence operatives, there seems to be more than enough evidence that the Kurds are gaming the current situation as much as anyone.

The Kirkuk referendum, preceded by the relocation of Arabs and Turkmen who were settled in the city by Saddam Hussein, is a major priority for Iraqi Kurds. It also happens to be a major irritant to Turkey, which believes a Kurdish Kirkuk is the first step towards an independent Kurdistan.

So far, the only solution has been to postpone the referendum. But it's a problem that can't be put off forever. Something to keep in mind while evaluating the overall prospects for Iraq's future.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Monday, April 9, 2007

If A Tree Falls In The Forest

I don't know about you, but I consider an operation involving thousands of troops backed by helicopters in which eleven soldiers and fourteen insurgents are killed in the course of a long weekend pretty newsworthy. Especially if it's one that seriously jeopardizes the stability of Iraq.

So why did the major flare-up in southeastern Turkey between government troops and guerillas from the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) barely get a mention in the American press? Or this angry exchange that followed it between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iraqi Kurdish Provincial President Massoud Barzani?

"They should be very careful in their use of words... otherwise they will be crushed by those words... Barzani has again exceeded the limits," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters in televised remarks...

"Turkey is not allowed to intervene in the Kirkuk issue and if it does we will interfere in Diyarbakir's affairs and other cities in Turkey," Barzani told Al Arabiyah television.

Iraqi Kurdistan is supposed to be the success story of the invasion. But the Kirkuk referendum has long been seen as the sleeping dog of the whole Iraq mess. Turkey has repeatedly warned that they'll intervene before they allow the Kurds to control the oil-rich city. It's also complained about the safe harbor they claim the PKK enjoys in Iraqi Kurdistan.

So when guns start going off in the general vicinity, you'd think we'd at least hear about it.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Media Coverage   

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Sunday, April 8, 2007

When The Lunatics Run The Asylum

It's hard to imagine that our detention policy in Iraq could outdo the damage of the Abu Ghraib outrages, but according to this Times of London article, we seem to be accomplishing just that:

America’s high-security prisons in Iraq have become “terrorist academies” for the most dangerous militant groups, according to former inmates and Iraqi government officials.

Inmates are left largely to run their blocks, which are segregated on sectarian lines. The policy has created a closed world run by Iraq’s worst terrorists and militias, into which detainees with no links to insurgent groups are often thrown.

It's a pretty scathing indictment, not just of the detention facilities themselves, which despite being the backstop of our counterinsurgency operations (after all, the proportion of insurgents we end up killing is quite small), have never undergone the comprehensive re-evaluation they obviously require.

But also of the entire counterinsurgency cycle itself. Specifically the ease with the insurgents have learned to manipulate the process to their own ends, whether by feeding faulty intelligence into the system to settle scores with their enemies, or by recruiting as yet un-radicalized detainees mistakenly caught up in the system.

Most striking is that, four years into a counterinsurgency war and three years after Abu Ghraib, we still don't seem to have a clue about the crucial role that a well thought out detention policy can play, both in breaking the back of the insurgency, and in forging trust among the non-combatant population. Instead we seem to have designed a system that does the exact opposite.

Update: The LA Times has got a story up on this too, with some more detail and good analysis.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Sunday, April 8, 2007

Time For The Divorce?

Less than a week ago, in a post titled The Honeymoon's Over, I noted that, given the defections of both leadership and foot soldiers plaguing the Mahdi Militia, Moqtada al-Sadr could not afford to stand down his forces for much longer. My prediction was for a limited confrontation with either American forces or those of a competing militia to re-establish control over his organization.

That limited conflict, it turns out, was already taking place in Diwaniyah, a city in southern Iraq where the Mahdi Militia was engaged in skirmishes with the local police force. The local police force, that is, that doubles as the Badr Brigade, ie. the armed wing of SCIRI, an Iranian-aligned Iraqi political party whose prominent members include one of Iraq's Vice-Presidents and the current Finance Minister.

This past Friday, when it looked like al-Sadr's guys were getting the upper hand, US and Iraqi forces mounted a campaign to retake the city, engaging in pitched battles and even calling in airstrikes.

Today, the AP is reporting that al-Sadr has issued a proclamation calling on his forces to refrain from targeting Iraqi army  units and to concentrate their attacks on American forces. My reading of the situation leads me to believe that the article's headline, "Al-Sadr Calls for Anti-U.S. Attacks", is a bit misleading. The call seems to be more for Iraqi unity than for attacks against American forces.

But that could change. And if it does, it will amount to the first real test of the new American approach to the War. So this one is worth keeping an eye on.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Saturday, April 7, 2007

Death Be Not Proud

Two stories I ran across really bring home the true cost of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the first one quite literally. According to this AP story, a law quietly took effect this past January that changed the way in which our dead soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan are being returned home to their families. The military is now required to fly the flag-draped caskets on military or military-contracted aircraft, to regional airports as close as possible to the family. Once there, the caskets must be removed from the plane by a military honor guard.

Before the law took effect, the caskets were flown by standard commercial jet, often unloaded from the plane by baggage handlers using forklifts, and delivered to the family in cargo area warehouses. The military claimed they were simply trying to expedite the delivery as much as possible. But when you compare the costs -- $1.2 million for all of last year by commercial flights versus $11 million for a six month contract with a charter company -- it's easy to be skeptical.

Meanwhile, in Reno, Nevada, the National Guard Bureau held its first ever Army Guard honor guard competition. I'll quote the article's description of the competition's "events", because a summary doesn't quite do it justice:

Each day began with an exhaustive in-ranks inspection during which Old Guard NCOs "hard-eyed" each Soldier from head to toe. They used rulers to check the uniforms; they wrote down the "gigs," or discrepancies.

Then the best of the Army Guard's best had themselves rated on all aspects of performing a funeral for a fallen veteran - from lifting caskets and urns out of hearses to firing the customary salute with M-14 rifles and presenting the folded flag to a deceased's family member.

The participants ran a grueling, timed obstacle course which had to be done twice - once for time and then repeated in full dress blues while performing honors; both times while carrying a casket weighted down by 200 pounds of sandbags. They also took a 60-question written exam on the history of memorial affairs.

Now the whole thing seems a bit over the top to me, especially the last bit about running an obstacle course in dress blues while carrying a 200 lb. casket. Almost like a Monty Python skit. But I'm not going for a cheap laugh here. Because this is what comes at the end of article:

Oregon's Turner praised the competition and also summed up what it meant to win and to a veteran of the Iraq War: "Pretty much all of us are combat veterans and we all lost friends over there. Every day we do services we'll be marching past our friends' headstones. ... Going out there and being pallbearers together, it's something you can't describe."

Now I'm not judging the way the military honors its dead. In fact, I think there's something moving and important about it. But this seems to me to be representative of the triumph in certain circles of form over function. Or worse yet, of formulas over reality. Because the truth is, it's cynical to talk about supporting our troops and at the same time treat the fallen like cargo. Or worse yet, to talk about honoring the dead and at the same time factor even one unnecessary military funeral into the political calculus of the war's endgame.

And that's what this administration is doing.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Friday, April 6, 2007

Come Again?

This is the kind of candid military assessment that you just don't see that much of from Bush appointees. From Admiral William Fallon, Centcom commander, in Egypt meeting with Hosni Mubarak:

Asked whether the United States would attack Iran soon, especially as Washington beefed up military presence in the Gulf region recently, the top U.S. officer gave a negative answer.

"Washington already had its hands full in Iraq and Afghanistan," he explained.

He went on to say the Iranian issue should be reolved through diplomatic channels.

It's actually more than candid. It borders on ill-advised: An American commander on a foreign visit admits that the US military is stretched thin. I wouldn't be surprised to see Admiral Fallon offering up a clarification.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Iran   Iraq   

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Friday, April 6, 2007

Lending A Hand

Remember the al-Qaeda training facilities in southeast Afghanistan? The ones where aspiring jihadists from across the Middle East, North Africa, Asia and Europe used to come to develop combat skills back before we drove them out of the country?

Well, according to this short piece in The National Interest, al-Qaeda's replaced them with live fire training in Iraq. And the technical expertise their operatives have gathered, like sophisticated IED technology and anti-aircraft tactics, is now showing up on the battlefields of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia.

Keep in mind, Bin Laden cut his teeth in the Afghan insurgency. For him, terrorism is only the preliminary tactic of a three-stage longterm strategy:

  1. Draw the US into a regional war through the use of terror attacks;
  2. Inflict enough losses to drive the US out of the Middle East definitively;
  3. Topple the newly-vulnerable moderate Arab states through local insurgencies.

So as far as he's concerned, live fire insurgency training will definitely come in handy some day. Of course, the only way his plan can ultimately succeed is if we help him out every step of the way. But so far, that's exactly what we've been doing.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Foreign Policy   Iraq   

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Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Mergers & Aquisitions

Last September on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden's right hand man, announced that the GSPC (the Algerian-based Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat) had officially joined al-Qaeda. The group, which had already announced its support for Bin Laden's jihad against the United States four years earlier, would later change its name to better reflect the brand image, becoming the Organisation of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

At the time of Zawahiri's announcement, the most significant outcome of the alliance seemed to be the targeting for jihad of France, Algeria's former colonial ruler, which until then had been spared much attention because of its opposition to the Iraq War. But as Michael Sheuer points out in this article in Terrorism Focus, the deal actually points to much wider implications. The three he identifies are:

  1. The success of Bin Laden's effort to get local, nationalist-oriented Islamic resistance groups to shift their emphasis towards targeting the "far enemy" (ie. America and the West), which is his principal strategic contribution to jihad, as discussed here.
  2. The combination of al-Qaeda "franchises" with the resurgence of al-Qaeda's central operational and leadership capacities, which means the West now faces a two-tiered threat.
  3. The use of Iraq as "contiguous territory" from which to gain access to Mediterranean and North African Islamic states, and from there, targets in Israel and Western Europe.

This last is worth emphasizing, because it means that far from keeping the terrorists occupied so they can't strike us here, as President Bush likes to claim, the Iraqi battlefield has offered al-Qaeda operatives valuable training experience while also serving as a point of departure for expanding into previously out of reach markets. As Scheuer puts it:

Although more research needs to be completed on the idea of Iraq being an al-Qaeda base for projecting itself into adjacent countries, it seems that not all of al-Qaeda's time has been spent fighting U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq.

CEO President? Meet the CEO terrorist.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Iraq   

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Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The Kurdish Connection

I ran across this interesting, if slightly dusty, piece on Iranian involvement in Iraq's civil war while doing some research for an unrelated article (Honest, I really was hoping for a couple Iran-free news cycles):

Then, on October 1, 2001, representatives of the Badr Corps and representatives of the KDP, which is led by Massoud Barzani, met in a Salahadeen resort located about 20 miles from Irbil, Kurdistan. The intent of the meeting was to renew and reinforce the Badr Corps’ ties with the KDP. During this meeting, Badr Corps leaders also asked the KDP representatives about the United States’ current and future intentions toward Iraq.

On October 2, 2001, the Badr Corps leadership met again with Massoud Barzani, head of the KDP, to discuss different ways to reinforce relations between the Badr Corps and the KDP. The Badr Corps’ representatives inquired about U.S. intentions in Iraq and asked Barzani’s permission to allow the Badr Corps to open an office in Irbil.

The Badr Corps is the armed wing of SCIRI, which is now an Iranian-aligned Iraqi Shiite political party. But before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, they were "organizationally indistinguishable" from Iran's Revolutionary Guards.

So in other words, the office that was raided this past January (think the Cockburn story from a couple days ago) was established as a result of Iranian-Kurdish contacts going back six years, to well before the American invasion. Which could explain why the Kurds were willing to get into a tense armed standoff with American forces to protect the Iranian intelligence officers we were after.

Not only is there a lot we don't know about the Irbil incident, I'm guessing it's pretty damning stuff. Something along the lines of our good friends the Kurds, the one success story of the entire invasion, are actually buddy-buddy with our worst enemy, Iran.

What's Christopher Hitchens going to say? 

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Our Man In Balochistan

I thought for a moment, when reading about the pending release of the 15 British sailors this morning, that we might have a few Iran-free news cycles to look forward to. Little did I realize that I'd missed a brand new one that had already started.

From an ABC News report broadcast yesterday:

A Pakistani tribal militant group responsible for a series of deadly guerrilla raids inside Iran has been secretly encouraged and advised by American officials since 2005, U.S. and Pakistani intelligence sources tell ABC News.

The group, called Jundullah, is made up of members of the Baluchi tribe and operates out of the Baluchistan province in Pakistan, just across the border from Iran.

It has taken responsibility for the deaths and kidnappings of more than a dozen Iranian soldiers and officials.

U.S. officials say the U.S. relationship with Jundullah is arranged so that the U.S. provides no funding to the group, which would require an official presidential order or "finding" as well as congressional oversight.

This is the group, you might recall, that claimed responsibility for blowing up a bus in southeastern Iran last February, killing 11 members of the Revolutionary Guards. Iran claims that the group is affiliated with al-Qaeda and the Taliban, though it's never been proven, and has long complained of American support.

An American official, on the other hand, told ABC News that Jundullah has collaborated with the US in tracking al-Qaeda members, and the CIA denied that they provided the group with any funding, which is consistent with the report's claims.

The truth is probably somewhere in between, depending on who shows up at the trading post on any given day. Either way, it's becoming increasingly clear that the Iranians have got some legitimate grievances. While it would be naive to think they've been acting like saints in Iraq, they're probably getting as good as they dish out, and on both sides of the map. As soon as the British sailors get back to London and the leaks start to fill in the gaps on what we know, it could turn out that they've actually shown some restraint.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The Honeymoon's Over

Remember at the outset of the Baghdad troop surge, when Moqtada al-Sadr standing down the Al Mahdi militia was a good sign? Well, think again. Because according to the LA Times, with Sunni insurgents targeting Shiite neighborhoods with increasingly deadly car bombs, some of the Al Mahdi fighters aren't too keen on sitting around doing nothing.

Trouble is, Moqtada doesn't have too much room to operate. His leadership has either gone underground or been arrested. And for all his railing against US forces, he still stands to lose more than he gains by breaking with the Maliki government and openly confronting Coalition forces.

So guess who's picking off the Al Mahdi hotheads who haven't just turned into independent rogue operators? That's right. Our good friends in Tehran.

My hunch is that Moqtada will pick a symbolic fight (ie. a limited confrontation with either another militia or American troops) sometime soon. Nothing drastic. Just enough to re-establish his control over his fighters without permanently backing himself into a corner.

In any event, something tells me that the Surge, which had a predictably positive initial impact, is about to get bumpy.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Tuesday, April 3, 2007

No Quid Pro Quo?

Patrick Cockburn claims, in The Independent, that Iran targeted "highly vulnerable Navy search parties in the Gulf", eventually leading to the capture and detention of the 15 British sailors now held in Tehran, as a result of an incident that took place this past January in the Iraqi Kurdistan city of Irbil (Arbil).

At that time, American forces raided an Iranian liaison office and detained five Iranian nationals. Iran, the Kurds and the Iraqi government formally protested, claiming the detained men were diplomats and the building a soon-to-be consulate. The US claimed the men were intelligence agents involved in targeting Coalition forces in Iraq.

Oddly enough, Cockburn fails to mention that just after the raid, American forces were engaged in a tense standoff with Kurdish Peshmerga forces as they tried to detain more people at the Irbil airport. He does, however, identify the targets of the two raids:

The two senior Iranian officers the US sought to capture were Mohammed Jafari, the powerful deputy head of the Iranian National Security Council, and General Minojahar Frouzanda, the chief of intelligence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, according to Kurdish officials.

The two men were in Kurdistan on an official visit during which they met the Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, and later saw Massoud Barzani, the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), at his mountain headquarters overlooking Arbil.

It's obviously impossible to know for sure if Cockburn's right. But in an interesting development, another Iranian diplomat who was "seized" two months ago by uniformed Iraqi soldiers considered to be under the direction of Coalition forces was just released.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Sunday, April 1, 2007

Deferred Maintenance

This LA Times article gives a good status report on all the political benchmarks that the Iraqi government was supposed to meet in order to justify the ongoing surge of American troops. Upshot? Don't hold your breath.

In fact, all of the much-touted political progress in Iraq turns out to be a hodge-podge of deferred decisions (the Kirkuk referendum), promised revisions (Sunni misgivings over the constitution), and pigeon-holed legislation (oil-sharing, amnesty, disbanding the militias), all cobbled together and promptly swept under the rug.

The good news is that the Iraqi battalions reporting to Baghdad for the surge are no longer arriving at 60-65% troop levels.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Sunday, April 1, 2007

What A Difference A Year Makes

Did you catch these three headlines?

Kind of hard not to notice them, given that the standoff between Congress and the White House over the Iraq War funding bill has been all over the news. The only thing is, these headlines are all about the Iraq War funding bill... from 2006. Here's a good quote from an April 25 WaPo article that described the bill hitting the Senate floor:

The measure is expected to eventually pass with ease, but not before the Senate takes ample time to discuss Iraq policy, gasoline prices and lawmakers' appetites for homestate projects.

And in fact, that's just what it did, so much so that the President threatened a veto, and a June 7 WaPo article titled "Deal Elusive On Iraq, Hurricane Aid Bill" included the following paragraph:

A Pentagon money crunch is worsening almost daily, but there won't be a crisis if Congress fails to clear the legislation by the end of the week.

An agreement was eventually reached the following day, almost four months after the President's initial appropriations request. So why didn't the President claim that Congress was playing politics with the safety of the troops, as he's done this year? And why didn't the Pentagon brass roll out a media campaign about the impact on troop readiness, as they've done this year? And why hasn't anyone referred to this in the coverage of the current showdown?

Update: UPI is reporting that according to the Congressional Research Service, there is absolutely no funding shortage for the war effort:

In a careful review of U.S. Army data and the Defense Department's existing legal authorities, non-partisan budget experts at CRS informed Congress the Army could maintain its wartime operations well into July 2007 with funds already provided.

Remember, the President's first response to the House's bill was to call it "political theater." 

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Saturday, March 31, 2007

Three Strikes, You're Out

From "Iraq’s Militias: The True Threat to Coalition Success in Iraq", in Parameters, the Army War College's quarterly journal:

But while religious extremism may typify the average insurgent, the biggest threat to American policy is not posed by the jihadist, who in most cases, lacks the ability to organize, effectively train and recruit forces (other than suicide bombers), and has no long-term strategy for generating resources, garnering public support, or achieving realistic strategic goals. The real hazard to American objectives in Southwest Asia comes from armed and active militias who, unlike most insurgents, have served as career soldiers, seized the support of their populace, and, in many cases, infiltrated national government institutions.

Though a form of resistance, militiamen are far different in nature than insurgents or terrorists. In the long-term, militias are most damaging because they weaken government influence by providing unofficial (and effective) security in localized areas using illegal methods. Due to the support they receive from their constituents and the resultant political power they wield, militias can only be neutralized through state-sponsored Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) initiatives.

Unfortunately, the DDR initiative outlined in the article depends on three components that seem to be lacking in Iraq: the political will to disband the militias, the economic conditions necessary to reintegrate militia members into civilian employment, and the re-establishment of security to obviate the perceived need for "private", non-state security agents.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Saturday, March 31, 2007

Who's Zooming Who?

Michael Crowley of TNR took issue with Charles Krauthammer's "Iraq or Afghanistan" WaPo op-ed as well, specifically Krauthammer's dismissal of Afghanistan as "geographically marginal". Trouble is, he's a little wide of the mark:

I see the Pakistani bomb as a greater near-term threat to my own life than anything that might happen in Iraq in the next few years. Given the proximity of Afghanistan to Pakistan, and the way Islamic radicals play the two countries off one another, it seems to me that creating stability and a climate inhospitable to anti-American terrorists there is no "marginal" thing at all.

First of all, it's important to remember that the ISI, Pakistan's military intelligence agency, was responsible for creating stability and a climate hospitable to anti-American terrorists in pre-9/11 Afghanistan. Far from being a threat to Pakistan, our enemies in Afghanistan functioned as useful pawns for Pakistani interests.

I'd also disagree with Crowley's characterization of who's triangulating whom. The ISI's been tossing the Coalition crumbs since the invasion, while continuing to supply covert aid to the Taliban and their terrorist fellow travellers. If anyone's playing both sides, it's Pakistan.

As annoying as Krauthammer generally is, he's correct when he says that, as of today, Iraq is strategically more important than Afghanistan. Whatever threat Afghanistan posed to our national security was eliminated when the terrorist training infrastructure that it harbored was dismantled and Al Qaeda's command & control capacity was disrupted. And we can keep both from reconstituting that threat with targeted special forces operations and aerial firepower.

Regardless of the fact that Iraq didn't pose a credible threat to America in 2003 (which I think is indisputable at this point), the consequences of a failed state there now would pose a much greater threat to our strategic interests than the consequences of failing to stabilize Afghanistan, which, it's important to remember, has essentially been a failed state for the past 20 years.

That doesn't mean that a stable, de-Talibanized Afghanistan isn't in our interests. It is. More importantly, it's actually an attainable result, assuming we throw the necessary resources at the problem. Unlike a stable, de-Iranianized Iraq, which at this point is an impossibility.

Which is why the Democrats are correct in calling for shifting our priorities and our resources from Iraq to Afghanistan. Even if they, and Crowley, are using the wrong arguments to do so.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Iraq   Media Coverage   

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Friday, March 30, 2007

Freedom Of The Press

More from the Iraq Weekly Status Report, this time from the section titled "Strengthen Public Understanding of Coalition Efforts and Public Isolation of the Insurgents":

The Independent Radio and Television Station, formerly operated under Saddam Hussein and then under the Iraqi Media Network, reopened in Diyala province March 25. Funding for the station comes from advertising revenue bought by the U.S. 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division in Diyala to send out Coalition messages. (Emphasis added.)

Who's vetting this stuff, Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Friday, March 30, 2007

Cherry Picking

From the "International Support for Iraq" section of the latest Iraq Weekly Status Report put out by the State Dept:

In a statement addressing leaders at a two-day Arab League summit that opened March 28 in Riyadh, Iraqi Parliament Speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani appealed to Arab leaders to “shoulder their legitimate, ethical and national responsibilities toward Iraq and to never abandon its people.”

Oddly enough, no mention was made of this quote from Saudi King Abdullah from the same Arab League summit:

In the beloved Iraq, the bloodshed is continuing under an illegal foreign occupation and detestable sectarianism.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Friday, March 30, 2007

Half-Right vs. Mostly-Wrong

I hesitated before clicking through on Charles Krauthammer's op-ed in today's WaPo. The tagline, since changed, was typical Krauthammer nonsense, the gist of it being that Congressional Dems are wrong about shifting the focus of the War on Terror from Iraq to Afghanistan.

Now I've hated Krauthammer ever since he used to write for the NY Post back when it didn't even have the excuse of being owned by Murdoch for its mindless editorial line. But in all fairness, on this one he happens to get two things right: First, for all the bitterness about how it was started four years ago, as things stand today the War in Iraq is by far more vital to American strategic interests than the War in Afghanistan. And second, the War in Afghanistan is not the central front in the War on Terror, Pakistani Waziristan notwithstanding.

Of course, Krauthammer being Krauthammer, that doesn't stop him from getting three things wrong:

  1. The War in Iraq isn't the central front in the War on Terror either.
  2. The War in Iraq is no longer winnable, and therefore doesn't justify the disproportionate resources it is being allocated.
  3. The War in Afghanistan is, and would benefit from a resource infusion, particularly in the form of reconstruction and development projects.

In other words, the Democrats are using the wrong arguments to advocate for the right policy. Which is still better than Krauthammer, who uses the wrong arguments to advocate for the wrong policy.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Iraq   Media Coverage   

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Watch Your Back

William S. Lind might be something of a wingnut when it comes to cultural issues, but as a military theorist, he's a pretty creative thinker. And in this article, he points out that America's lines of supply in Iraq depend on safe passage through, 1) the Shiite south, and 2) the Persian Gulf. Neither of which is a safe bet in the event of hostilities with Iran. Something to think about.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Monday, March 26, 2007

There's A First Time For Everything

The most curious aspect of the Iranian capture and detention of 15 British sailors has to be the President's deafening silence on the matter. From today's White House press briefing:

Q About the British sailors... Is there a deliberate effort to keep a backseat on this, for the White House to not mess up some sort of diplomatic efforts?

MS. PERINO: Well, you can be assured that we are in close contact with our British allies. We strongly support the message that Tony Blair sent yesterday, the strong message of the hostage taking being wrong and unjustified. But as far as further comment, I don't have anything for you.

Q Is the President not outraged by this?

MS. PERINO: We share the same concern and the outrage that Prime Minister Blair has.

Q Will we be hearing from the President on it?

MS. PERINO: I'll keep you updated.

Obviously, they want to avoid any unnecessary bellicosity to keep from aggravating the situation...

Wait a minute. Did I just say that? About the Bush administration? Like I said, the most curious aspect of the Iranian capture and detention of 15 British sailors has to be the President's deafening silence on the matter.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iran   Iraq   

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Monday, March 26, 2007

The Essence Of Empire

Brig. Gen. Stephen Mundt, director of Army aviation, from an article in the Hill:

“While the military may be on a war footing, our nation’s industry is not on a war footing,” Mundt told a group of reporters at the Pentagon. He urged industry to get to a point where it is producing equipment faster.

Mundt was referring specifically to the difficulties the Army has had replacing the 130 helicopters lost in Iraq and Afghanistan. It takes two years from the time Congress ok's the funds before the helicopters are delivered.

I mentioned this before with regards to an eventual attack on Iran, but it bears repeating. The sine qua non of the neocon agenda is an America placed on permanent wartime footing. That is the essence of Empire: continuous partial engagement. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are first steps towards that goal, but they are still reversible.  Should we attack Iran, on the other hand, there will be no turning back for the foreseeable future.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Foreign Policy   Iran   Iraq   

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Money Talks

This graphic is taken from the State Dept's Iraq Weekly Status Report for March 21. The blue line shows the volume of US Dollars sold in the Iraqi currency auction. As you can see, there's a dramatic drop, from a daily average of roughly $80 million to $8 million, in the first week in November 2006. After a slight bump, the action finally picks back up on... January 21. The two dates correspond to the mid-term Congressional elections and President Bush's State of the Union address.

What does it mean? One possible explanation is that given the possibility of an end to the US occupation, represented by the Democratic takeover of Congress, Iraqis overwhelmingly decided to hold on to their greenbacks. Once the President announced the troop surge in the SOTU address, on the other hand, folks felt secure enough to put their dollars back on the market.

Evidence of at least two ways in which Iraqi public opinion is more dialed in than George Bush's. First, it recognized that the American mid-term election was a rejection of the war. And second, it recognized that Iraq as a stable society does not exist absent an American military presence.

The entire war debate now revolves around the question of whether it's still possible to change that, and if so, at what cost.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Power Of The Purse

With a group of veterans and the families of fallen soldiers gathered behind him at the White House, President Bush accused House Democrats yesterday of engaging in political theater by passing a war funding bill requiring staged withdrawal from Iraq (video here, text here):

Democrats want to make clear that they oppose the war in Iraq. They have made their point. For some, that is not enough.

Imagine that. The elected House of Representatives might actually believe they have the right to govern. The audacity of it.

He ended by saying, "The Democrats have sent their message, now it's time to send their money." This is obviously a guy who's not used to having his allowance cut off.

Update: Good catch. The New York Nerd points out that a woman standing behind the President during his address was in uniform, which is a violation of Dept. of Defense regulations for both active duty soldiers and veterans.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Political Brinksmanship

It's still too early in the process to tell whether Congress' gambit to link war funding to a withdrawal timetable will be successful. To begin with, the Senate could still kill the deal. But assuming the bill eventually does wind up on President Bush's desk, he's already promised a veto, one that Pelosi doesn't have the votes to overturn.

At that point, scrapping the withdrawal timetable reinforces the false image of Democrats as being weak and quick to cave in. But sending the same bill back to the Oval Office for another veto turns war funding into a political game of chicken. And that's where the President has the advantage, because he's only got one person to convince to get the veto issued, whereas Pelosi's got to twist 218 arms to get the bill passed. She got the votes this time, but only just barely.

Where the rubber hits the road on this tactic is once the clock starts winding down on getting the money where it's needed to protect the American soldiers' lives that are at stake.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Friday, March 23, 2007

48 Hours

When the British announced they'd be drawing down their troop levels in the south of Iraq, the Bush administration insisted it was a sign not of failure, but of success. So it's instructive to note that exactly two days after British troops pulled out of downtown Basra, turning the city over to the Iraqi Army, street battles broke out between the armed militias of Moqtada al-Sadr and the Fadhila Party which governs the province.

According to the CSM article, it's not clear whether the battles represent a political or clan-related dispute. And it's still too early to tell whether the Iraqi forces will be capable of restoring order. But it seems obvious that given the choice between applying surge-like pressure in Basra and pulling out, the British chose the latter. Probably, I suspect, because they believed that the battles that broke out today might be postponed, but not prevented.

Something to keep in mind as the administration vaunts the initial successes of the Baghdad Surge.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Friday, March 23, 2007

Power Of The Purse

Another quick thought on the House bill tying supplemental appropriations for the Iraq War to a withdrawal schedule. If ever there was a case study for why the line item veto is a bad idea, this is it. There's an enormous difference, politically speaking, between Congress de-funding the war and attaching conditions on its funding. A difference that would be moot if the President had the power to take the funding and veto the conditions.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   Iraq   

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Friday, March 23, 2007

Money Talks

In response to Congress linking supplemental appropriations for the Iraq war to a withdrawal timetable, President Bush promised a veto. So my question is, Does that mean he doesn't support the troops?

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Mapquest, With The Body Counts

Thanks to reader and commenter RGM for catching this "nice, interactive map of hell" from the same BBC story on the Ban press conference in Baghdad. Take a look.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Price Of Unity

I admit I'd always been a little bit baffled every time I read that Moqtada al-Sadr's militia had infiltrated the Iraqi Health Ministry. I could understand infiltrating the Defense Ministry, or the Justice Ministry. But what the heck can you do with the Health Ministry?

Then this article in the BBC about the exodus of Iraq's doctors and the resulting lack of decent medical care triggered a little light bulb moment. It describes how patients and even staff have been routinely killed by militias who raid the hospitals with impunity. Militias that are based in the Health Ministry.

A quick google search returned this USA Today article from last November. This is pretty chilling stuff, worth a lengthy quote:

Iraq's Health Ministry is a case study in how al-Sadr used his government role to consolidate his political and military support.

Ministry-run hospitals have been used as a weapon against rival Sunnis, according to critics, such as Sunni lawmaker Mithal al-Alusi. "It's a jungle," al-Alusi says. "What (al-Sadr) has done with that ministry is criminal."

Last month, a Sunni man was taken to Kindi Hospital in central Baghdad for a gunshot wound, says Omar al-Jubouri, human rights director at the Iraqi Islamic Party.

He was shot and killed in his hospital bed, al-Jubouri says. His brother went to retrieve the body. He brought 17 male relatives along for protection, but they were quickly outgunned by an even larger group of armed men, believed to be the Mahdi Army, al-Jubouri says. The group was kidnapped and killed, he adds.

Two days later, the family picked up the 19 bodies, escorted by an Iraqi army convoy, from the Baghdad morgue. Al-Jubouri says some of the bodies showed signs of torture, including drill holes to the skull and electrocution burns.

So many Sunnis have been followed and killed after picking up relatives at the ministry-controlled Baghdad morgue that al-Jubouri's party regularly coordinates Iraqi army convoys to escort the families, he says. "We'll wait until we have 17 or 18 bodies waiting," he says. "Then we'll send for the convoy."

There's alot more about ministry offices being used for holding cells, complete with gruesome evidence of torture, as well as the steady degradation of the quality of the nation's health care services. This is what al-Sadr got in return for giving up armed resistance to the occupation and opting into the political process.

It's worth recalling that until very recently, the Bush administration trumpeted the Iraqi unity government as a major benchmark of progress. But it was never anything but a sham. A bloody and murderous sham. And Bush only agreed to drop the pretense because the Iraq Study Group blew his cover.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Explosion? What Explosion?

Check out this video clip of a mortar blast interrupting UN chief Ban Ki-Moon's and Iraqi Prime Minister Mouri Maliki's press conference today in Baghdad. The expression on Ban's face as he looks around the room and realizes that no one else seems to have even noticed the loud explosion is priceless.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Next Whiskey Bar

Christopher Hitchens has a piece in Vanity Fair vaunting the successful reconstruction under way in Iraqi Kurdistan, where he spent his Christmas vacation with his son. Short version? This is what Hitchens had in mind for the rest of Iraq when he vociferously argued in favor of the war, so now when he considers how things have turned out, he feels betrayed. Shorter version? In Kurdistan, "Liquor stores and bars are easy to find, sometimes operated by members of the large and unmolested Christian community." Something tells me Hitchens has finally found a use for religion that he can approve of.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Playdate For Cheney

Looks like Dick Cheney's got someone to play with in the padded rec room after all. In a WSJ Opinion piece, Edward Jay Epstein claims that Khalid Sheikh Muhammad's confession raises new questions about the link between... You guessed it: Saddam and al-Qaeda. Here's Epstein playing Columbo:

In his confession, however, KSM says that he was responsible for the [1993] WTC bombing. If so, both it and 9/11 are the work of the same mastermind--and the planning, financing and support network that KSM used in the 1993 attack may be relevant to the 9/11 attack. Of especial interest are the escape routes used by Abdul Rahman Yasin and Ramzi Yousef, both of whom helped prepare the bomb and then fled America.

Yasin... came to the U.S. from Iraq in 1992, at about the same time as Yousef, and then returned to Iraq via Jordan. Despite being indicted for the World Trade Center bombing, and put on the FBI's list of the most-wanted terrorist fugitives with a $5 million price on his head (increased to $25 million after 9/11), Iraqi authorities allowed Yasin to remain in Baghdad for 10 years. (In 2003, after the U.S. invasion, he disappeared.)

Epstein goes on to describe how the other bomb-maker for the 1993 attack, Ramzi Yousef, fled to Pakistan, where he was later caught after taking part in yet another bombing plot. Obviously, no mention is made of Pakistan's possible link to al-Qaeda.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Global War On Terror   

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Monday, March 19, 2007

The More Things Change...

From "Cards On The Table", Time Magazine, May 5, 1967:

"I stand in the shadow of military men who have been here before me," Westmoreland began, "but none of them could have had more pride than is mine in representing the gallant men fighting in Viet Nam today." Congress broke in to applaud him — and did so 19 times during his 28-minute speech. He drew an ovation when he touched, ever so lightly, on the delicate topic of antiwar protests. "In evaluating the enemy strategy, it is evident to me that he believes our Achilles heel is our resolve," said Westmoreland. "Your continued strong support is vital to the success of our mission."

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Monday, March 19, 2007

The More They Stay The Same

From "What Withdrawal Would Really Mean", Time Magazine, October 24, 1969:

The argument for immediate withdrawal comes in many forms...

In its more reasoned and restrained Version, however, the argument is persuasive. It goes something like this: The U.S. is pledged to leave anyway. It would indeed be useful if, before departing, the U.S. were to ensure a more or less independent South, but that is a hopeless task—the Saigon regime will not be able to stand on its own for many years to come, if ever. Certainly it will not do so while it can rely on the American presence to prop it up. "Vietnamization" is a sham, or at least so poor a bet that it does not justify the continued war effort.

True, it might be useful for the U.S. to delay its departure, or make it gradual, even if at the end of two or three years the Saigon government were to fall, because the delay would cushion the blow to U.S. prestige and would give the U.S. time to shore up its positions elsewhere. But that advantage is not worth the cost—in lives, in money, and in domestic discord. Bitterness at home is likely to grow so severe, if the war is continued even at a relatively low level, that the U.S. system itself is likely to be seriously impaired. Besides, the longer the war lasts, the stronger will be the sentiment for "No More Viet Nams"—a new isolationism that will cripple future U.S. policy in the world...


All things considered, an immediate, unilateral withdrawal of U.S. troops that would leave South Viet Nam to its fate is an inadequate, emotional solution to a complex and tragic problem. What, then, are the alternatives? The harsh truth is that there are few available to President Nixon... [T]he only other plausible course is gradual, orderly withdrawal, accompanied by "Vietnamizing" of the war. The pace of the troop withdrawals so far set by the President should be speeded up. But they would probably have to be spread over two years, with some U.S. logistical support perhaps continuing longer, during which time 1) the Saigon government could be given a chance, however slim, of standing alone, and 2) the U.S. could shore up positions elsewhere in Asia, mostly through economic and diplomatic efforts. This would in fact mean that the U.S. would pull out by a certain time, regardless of the chances of the Saigon regime to survive—although the U.S. would not say so officially.

10,647 American soldiers were killed in action in Viet Nam after this article appeared.

46,880 American soldiers were wounded in action in Viet Nam after this article appeared.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Friday, March 16, 2007

Loves Me, Loves Me Not


After four years of hostility, Sadr and the Americans are cooperating uneasily as the United States and Iraq attempt to tame Baghdad's sectarian violence. American officials, who in recent months described Sadr's Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias as the biggest threat to Iraq's stability, now praise the Shiite cleric.


Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr today denounced the presence of U.S. troops in his Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City, and thousands of his followers waved banners and marched through the neighborhood to back his call for a withdrawal of foreign forces.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Dept. Of Unintended Irony

How's this for back-to-back duelling paragraphs? From the State Department's most recent Weekly Status Report for Iraq:

Ministry of Interior Cleans House:

  • The Ministry of Interior has fired or reassigned more than 10,000 employees,including high-ranking officers, who were found to have tortured prisoners, accepted bribes or had ties to militias. A ministry spokesman said that reports that an internal inquiry included details of numerous human rights abuse at the ministry.

Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki Condemns “Illegal” UK Raid:

  • Prime Minister Maliki has criticized a raid by British forces on the Iraqi interior ministry's intelligence office in Basrah. A British military spokesman said that the raid on the National Iraqi Intelligence Agency office, where 37 people were held prisoner, had uncovered evidence of torture. However, Maliki has ordered an investigation into the raid, demanding that “those behind this illegal and irresponsible act be punished.”

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Say What?   

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Building Consensus

Reading through the Defense Department's just released report to Congress on security and reconstruction developments in Iraq, a couple things struck me as worth mentioning. First, the "four war" approach to analysing the conflict first articulated by Robert Gates in January is now the party line. So:

  • The conflict in the north is characterized by sectarian tensions, insurgents and extremist attacks, and competition among ethnic groups (Kurd, Arab, Turkomen) for political and economic dominance, including control of the oilfields centered around Kirkuk...
  • Violence in Anbar is characterized by Sunni insurgents and AQI attacks against Coalition forces. AQI and affiliated Sunni extremists are attempting to intimidate the local population into supporting the creation of an Islamic state...
  • Violence in Baghdad, Diyala, and Balad is characterized by sectarian competition for power and influence between AQI and JAM, principally through murders, executions, and high-profile bombings...
  • The conflict in the southern provinces is characterized by tribal rivalry; factional violence among the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI)/Badr Organization, the Office of the Martyr Sadr/JAM, and smaller militias for political power; and attacks on Coalition forces...

As Philip Carter made clear in Slate last month, while this analysis helps explain a wide range of otherwise stubborn anomalies (such as how it is that "...we [are] making tangible progress in developing Iraq's security forces, government, and economy, yet the overall security situation [is] worsening..."), it is not an encouraging sign for our chances of success over there.

But what really caught my eye was this handy little table (AQI = Al Qaeda Iraq, JAM = Jaysh al Mahdi):

Goals of Key Destabilizing Elements in Iraq



Sunni Insurgents

  • Expel U.S. and Coalition forces from Iraq
  • Topple the “unity” government
  • Re-establish Sunni governance in Anbar and Diyala


  • Force Coalition forces withdrawal
  • Gain territory to export conflict
  • Provoke clash between Islam and others
  • Establish caliphate with Shari’a governance


  • Force Coalition forces withdrawal
  • Consolidate control over Baghdad and the GOI
  • Exert control over security institutions
  • Implement Shari’a governance

All emphasis is my own. But while it should come as no surprise that our armed adversaries in Iraq would be happy to see us leave, it's worth recalling that this correlates pretty strongly with the last public opinion polling in Iraq, from September 2006, which found that 71% of the population wanted American forces to leave within a year.

But wait, there's more. Because it turns out that this also happens to be the preference of roughly 60% of Americans. So the real question right now is, Given that all the interested parties want American forces to withdraw, how is it that what's instead taking place is a prolonged escalation of our military presence?

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iraq   

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Monday, March 12, 2007


The Los Angeles Times is reporting that the Pentagon has begun planning a fallback option in the event that the current Baghdad troop Surge "...fails or is derailed by Congress." Although only in its initial planning phase and already the subject of fierce internal opposition, it would in its broadest terms amount to a redux of the "El Salvador model": re-deploying the bulk of American forces "out of harm's way," and committing the remainder to training and advisory roles. Or in other words, a return to the failed Iraq strategy that preceded the Surge.

I came up with the following graphic, in an olive drab color scheme, to help simplify the military logic:

War planning. From the folks who brought you the $700 toilet seat.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Robin Hood? Or Scarface?

From The Army Times comes the story of Spc. Luke Sommer, an Army Ranger who used his $20,000 re-enlistment bonus to finance a bank heist that he and four buddies, two of them fellow Rangers, pulled off with "military-style precision." That is, unless you ignore the part about a witness jotting down the getaway car's license plate number, allowing the FBI to track down the car the following morning parked inside the gated compound of Fort Lewis, WA. They quickly bagged evidence of the crime and four of the five suspects.

Sommer, a dual American-Canadian citizen who's fighting extradiction from Canada, claims the robbery was intended as a publicity stunt to call attention to war crimes he witnessed while on tour in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Asst. US Attorney handling the case claims that e-mails and IMs found on Sommers seized computer reveal a plan to use the proceeds from the robbery to finance a criminal organization in Canada.

The case is interesting for more than just the intrigue of Somers' claims, which in all likelihood won't keep him from doing time. It raises the question of what impact the Iraq War will have on the generation that's fighting it.

For a while I've thought that the practical (as opposed to the ethical and moral) problem with torture once it's practiced by American agents abroad is that, sooner or later, the torturers come home. Same goes for occupying a foreign country. Eventually the occupiers come home, too. And at least some of them will return with the sense of omnipotence that being young, armed and all-powerful can instill.

That's why traditionally democracies make lousy occupying powers (the obvious exceptions being the post-War occupation of Germany and Japan), and why occupations so often corrupt democracies.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Global War On Terror   Iraq   Say What?   

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Monday, March 5, 2007

The Fear Factor

Harper's just posted an Edward Luttwak article from the February print issue on its website. Titled "Dead End: Counterinsurgency warfare as military malpractice", it makes the case that the Army's new counterinsurgency manual authored by Gen. Dave Petraeus, of Baghdad Surge fame, is basically a crock.

Luttwak agrees that counterinsurgency is a political struggle. But he takes issue with Petraeus' reliance on the received wisdom that better governance can drive a wedge between an insurgency and the general population that sometimes actively, but more often passively, harbors it:

The hidden assumption here is that there is only one kind of politics in this world, a politics in which popular support is important or even decisive, and that such support can be won by providing better government. Yet the extraordinary persistence of dictatorships as diverse in style as the regimes of Cuba, Libya, North Korea, and Syria shows that in fact government needs no popular support as long as it can secure obedience.

Luttwak argues that historically, insurgencies have been most effectively denied safe harbor through the adoption of the very tactics used by the insurgents to intimidate the local population into silence or cooperation. Specifically, collective punishment, random retaliation, and the occasional massacre. Tactics used by the ancient Romans, the Ottoman Empire, the Nazi Germans, to mention only a few:

Occupiers can thus be successful without need of any specialized counterinsurgency methods or tactics if they are willing to out-terrorize the insurgents, so that the fear of reprisals outweighs the desire to help the insurgents or their threats.

(It is also, not coincidentally, the method used by Saddam Hussein in the Shiite town of Dujail, for which he was sentenced to death, although Luttwak makes no mention of this.)

For Luttwak, the conclusion is self-evident:

It is enough to consider these methods to see why the armed forces of the United States or of any other democratic country cannot possibly use them.

He holds out some hope for the use of mandatory administrative functions (licenses, permits, travel documents, etc.) as a means of coercing the general population into cooperation, but concludes by condemning,

...a United States government that is willing to fight wars, that is willing to start wars because of future threats, that is willing to conquer territory or even entire countries, and yet is unwilling to govern what it conquers, even for a few years.

All in all, a pretty scathing indictment of the philosophical underpinnings of what amounts to our last chance in Iraq.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, March 1, 2007

Add This To The Mix

There is one area of Iraq where Iran is not only not denying their intentions to intervene, they're actually announcing them. By way of Le Monde, Iran has threatened military action against an armed Iranian Kurdish group based in Iraqi Kurdistan if the Iraqi government doesn't take action against them. The group, PJAK, is the Iranian wing of the Kurdish PKK party. Operating from bases established in the Qandil mountains that lie on the border of Turkey, Iran and Iraq, PJAK has mounted raids into Iranian and Turkish territory for the past two years. According to the Iranians, violent battles have accounted for 40 PJAK deaths, with 7 Iranians killed, in the past week alone.

If the Iraqi government doesn't act, warned Yahya Rahim Safavi, a Revolutionary Guard commander, cited by the Iranian news agency Mehr, "...we reserve the right to pursue them beyond the (Iranian) border." (Translated from the French.)

The Iranians claim the group is armed and financed by the Americans and British. According to an article on the Kurdish nationalist site

Turkey and Iran are amassing troops along the Iraqi Kurdish border in a planned joint operation against the Partiye Krekarani Kurdistane (PKK), which is lodged in the Qandil mountains and launching attacks against Turkish and Iranian security targets. Although the Kurdish elite emphasize that their autonomous region is not a staging ground for terrorist activities, Massoud Barzani threatened that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) would retaliate if the region was militarily attacked by Turkey and Iran.

People have a tendency to think of Iraqi Kurdistan as the one trouble-free part of the country. But there are all sorts of potential troublespots that have to do with the Kurds' fierce desire for independence, and the Turks' and Iranians' fierce desire to maintain the status quo. And while the Kirkuk referendum being reportedly postponed for two years gives everyone some breathing room, stories like today's show how easily things could still go haywire.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   International Relations   

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Monday, February 26, 2007

Moqtada Blackout

Interesting. You'd think that Moqtada al-Sadr withdrawing his support for the Surge would be front page news. But while all the major American dailes carried the story, it took some digging to find it. Could it be that it's actually a non-story?

The NY Times had this to say:

Members of another major Shiite group, the political bloc loyal to the anti-American cleric Moktada Al-Sadr, sought to clarify the cleric’s stance on the new security plan today, declaring that Mr. Sadr still supported the plan, despite a statement attributed to him on Sunday saying that the effort to pacify Baghdad was doomed to failure because it relied on American troops.

Saleh al-Ugaili, a member of parliament spokesman for Mr. Sadr’s political movement, said the statement was meant to emphasize a need for more Iraqi control.

Like I said. Interesting.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Media Coverage   

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Bad Day In Baghdad

According to the AFP, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has fallen ill and been taken to Jordan for further tests. The cause is apparently work-related exhaustion. Talabani has won praise for championing unity and working towards reconciling Iraq's various interest groups. It would be a shame to see him sidelined, especially now.

The same article describes a letter from Moqtada al-Sadr that was read outloud in Baghdad, calling for Iraqi forces to stop cooperating with "the occupiers." That would be us, for everyone keeping score at home.

Update: Le Monde has a longer excerpt from Moqtada's letter read out loud in Baghdad today than the English-language AFP story. Translated, it continues:

"The security plan under the command of our enemy holds nothing good for Iraqis... Stay away from them, make your plan an independent, Iraqi plan, not a dictatorial and sectarian plan."

Now, I'm admittedly reading quite a bit into this, but "Stay away from them" sounds like a heads up to me. Kind of like telling them to get out of the line of fire. Could Moqtada be giving his guys the green light to start targeting the Surge?

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Saturday, February 24, 2007

Even More War Powers

A few more thoughts about the Bush administration's reasoning for why the 2002 Iraq War Authorization Act still applies, which now hangs on the clause that calls for the enforcement of "...all relevant UN Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq."

Let's assume, for argument's sake, that it's reasonable to interpret that clause as referring to resolutions passed after the invasion, as the White House is suggesting. We're now talking about the series of resolutions passed to legitimize the war ex post facto, since the pre-War resolutions had, by most accounts, not done so. A series of resolutions, you'll recall, that was demanded by the UN and opponents of the war before they'd participate in Iraqi reconstruction.

The administration's argument, then, is that the War Authorization Act still applies because we're enforcing UN resolutions that were passed after the actual war, to make up for the absence of the UN resolutions initially demanded by the War Authorization Act as a condition for the war.

But even setting aside the logical incoherence of that argument, a quick glance at the post-War resolutions shows that only the first two, Resolution 1483 and Resolution 1511, identify the Multi-National Force as an occupying power with the resulting legal obligations to guarantee Iraq's security and territorial integrity.

Beginning with Resolution 1546, which recognized the sovereignty of the Iraqi Interim Government, and continuing through Resolution 1723, which recognized the formation of the Iraqi Unity Government, the Multi-National Force's mandate is a function of the attached formal requests by the Iraqi government for its presence. The resolutions themselves simply serve to recognize the legitimacy of those requests.

The Bush administration has got nothing but smoke and mirrors here. Which won't necessarily stop them, seeing as they've gone to war on less. But I'm guessing they'll have to fall back on procedural tactics again to shoot down a repeal. After that, wherever public opinion comes down should go a long way to clarifying how soon it will be before we withdraw from Iraq.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Saturday, February 24, 2007

More War Powers

Reading through the 2002 Iraq War Authorization Act again, there's also this:  A requirement for a Presidential determination that,

...acting pursuant to this resolution is consistent with the United States and other countries continuing to take the necessary actions against international terrorists and terrorist organizations, including those nations, organizations or persons who planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorists attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001. 

I'm not a constitutional scholar, or a legislative specialist, so I don't know whether this is further grounds to repeal the act. But it seems like a pretty strong argument could be made that this has not been the case.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Iraq   Politics   

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Saturday, February 24, 2007

Read It And Weep

In yesterday's White House press briefing, spokesman Tony Fratto staked out the Bush administration's position regarding any Democratic attempt to replace the 2002 Iraq War Authorization Act with a more strictly defined, updated mission. And needless to say, it's a doozy.

According to Fratto, even though the ongoing American military presence is no longer necessary to meet the Act's first goal, ie. to "...defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq...", it is still necessary to meet the second, ie. to "...enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions regarding Iraq..."

Not the pre-War Security Council Resolutions calling for disarming Iraq and allowing weapons inspections, mind you. The post-War resolutions defining the Multi-National Force's mandate to secure and stabilize Iraq.

Either way, it's strikes me as the height of irony, or else the height of cynicism, or both, to see the Bush administration finally find a use for the United Nations.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

What Took Us So Long?

According to eyewitnesses cited in this post on Iraq Slogger, the Baghdad security plan is having a noticeable effect on conditions on the ground. The body count at the city morgue dropped from 300 per week to 50. Foot soldiers of the Mahdi Army, the Sadrist militia, are being targeted enough to no longer feel comfortable patrolling Shiite neighborhoods with their assault rifles visible. And government vehicles are no longer being used for personal, or even sectarian, use.

Why it took us four years to get around to such basic security issues is a question that no one seems to be making the White House address. They should.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Lock And Load (And Cross Your Fingers)

I remember reading in James Gibson's "The Perfect War: Technowar In Vietnam" that as far back as that conflict, the M16 was notorious for being a lightweight and accurate rifle that jammed and failed often. Apparently, the same is true for the M4 rifle which was introduced in the early Nineties.

Which is why starting in 2002, members of an elite Special Forces unit teamed up with a German light arms manufacturer, Heckler & Koch, to design and field test a combat assault rifle, the H&K 416, that has proven to be significantly more reliable than either the M4 or the M16 while remaining cost competitive. It's been production-ready since 2004, and the Delta Force members fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq are already outfitted with them.

But the Army has ruled out issuing them to the general infantry, citing the cost -- $1 billion -- of  replacing the entire fleet of M16's and M4's as prohibitive. And they've ordered 100,000 more M4's for 2008, even though a 2001 Special Operations Command study found that it suffered from an "obsolete operating system," and a 2006 Army reliability test found that brand new, off the shelf M4's & M16's misfired every 5,000 rounds in laboratory conditions, compared to every 15,000 rounds for the H&K 416.

So the next time the GOP talks about supporting our troops, someone might mention that a good place to start would be with rifles that actually fire when you pull the trigger.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Iraq   Odds & Ends   

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Can't Lose For Winning

You've got to hand it to these guys. Not only do they come up with whoppers, they do it on the fly like it was no thing. No sooner had Tony Blair announced that he would draw down British troop levels in Southern Iraq (by 1600 out of roughly 7000, with the rest to follow depending on conditions on the ground), than the Bush administration claimed it was a sign that things were going as planned. Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, didn't quite see it the same way in an analysis published today:

The British may not have been defeated in a purely military sense, but lost long ago in the political sense if "victory" means securing the southeast for some form of national unity. Soft ethnic cleansing has been going on in Basra for more than two years, and the south has been the scene of the less violent form of civil war for control of political and economic space that is as important as the more openly violent struggles in Anbar and Basra.

As a result, the coming British cuts in many ways reflect the political reality that the British "lost" the south more than a year ago. The Shi'ites will takeover, Iranian influence will probably expand, and more Sunnis, Christians, and other minorities will leave. British action will mean more pressure for federation and separatism, but local power struggles are more likely to be between Shi'ite factions than anything else.

He also had some sobering words for the Surge in Baghdad:

Just as the British confused Basra with a regional center of gravity, the Bush Administration may well have compounded these problems by confusing Baghdad with the center of gravity in a national struggle for the control of political and economic space that affects every part of the country...

Winning security control of the city and losing Iraq’s 11 other major cities and countryside to Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic factions is not victory in any strategic (sic), it is defeat. As has been discussed earlier, the minimal requirement for a successful US strategy is a relatively stable and secure Iraq, not temporary US military control of Baghdad.

So far, however, the US has not shown that it has a clear plan for taking control of Baghdad with the US and Iraqi resources it has available, or described a credible operational plan for moving from “win” to “hold” and “build.” It has completely failed to set forth a strategy and meaningful operational plan for dealing with Iraq as a country even if it succeeds in Baghdad.

He goes on to outline any number of tactics the insurgents could use to respond to the surge, including:

  • Stretching American forces thin across Baghdad to pick off isolated and weak outposts;
  • Carrying out high profile attacks against civilian targets, aid efforts and political leaders;
  • Carrying out high profile attacks on US forces;
  • Taking the fight elsewhere, thereby shifting the center of gravity of the conflict outside of Baghdad.

It seemed like public opinion had already come to terms with losing the war before the Surge. But at that point it had been lost, not to an enemy, but to the uncontrollable chaos and violence of the Iraqi civil war.

What happens if the Surge not only doesn't work, but actually exposes us to significant losses? Will the possibility of actually leaving Iraq as a "defeated" army be enough to restore public support for the war? Or will it, on the contrary, accelerate the calls for withdrawal? And if the goal now has been reduced to leaving Iraq with honor, as Cheney put it recently, will that be further justification for escalating our involvement?

Up until now I didn't really think things could get much worse. I'm not so sure anymore.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iraq   

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Monday, February 19, 2007

The Shape Of Things To Come?

This article in the Times about a bold, co-ordinated daylight attack on a US outpost north of Baghdad is troubling , because it describes a sophisticated insurgency that's capable of picking off isolated American units and inflicting heavy casualties (2 dead, 17 wounded). Casualties that could have been considerably higher given that four helicopters were flown in to evacuate American wounded while the firefight was still going on.

Remember that the Surge plan for Baghdad calls for not just sweeping the city, but quartering American troops outside the fortified Green Zone in neighborhood outposts. Which makes them particularly vulnerable to this kind of attack.

Up to now I'd been basing my reaction to the troop escalation in Baghdad on two assumptions. One, that it would have a short-term impact on that city's level of violence by displacing attacks to other areas of the country. Two, that whatever violence continued in Baghdad would not be directed at American troops.

Now it looks like the Sunnis have decided to take the fight elsewhere while continuing to blow up civilians in Baghdad. And if that continues, it's a safe bet the Shiites won't be laying low for long. Add in an insurgency that's shown it's willing and able to inflict damage in well-coordinated conventional attacks, and it looks like a volatile mix just got even more volatile.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Monday, February 19, 2007

What A Difference Forty Years Makes

With all the comparisons being made between Iraq and Vietnam, it's interesting to note one major difference in progressive opposition to the two wars. Unlike with the Vietnam War, opposition to the Iraq War is almost never expressed in pacifist terms. Critics take pains to point out that they're not anti-war, they're just anti-this-war. Then there's the oft-leveled criticism of the diversion of troops and resources from Afghanistan to Iraq, a criticism that implicitly accepts the necessity of the War in Afghanistan.

Of course, it's not surprising. The 1960's anti-war movement was conditioned by the pacifism of the civil rights movement that preceded it. A pacificism that became something of a knee-jerk reaction for the progressive left throughout the two decades that followed.

Already, a number of events during the Nineties would begin to change all that. The Yugoslavian wars, for instance, and in particular the ethnic cleansing that accompanied them, where isolated voices on the left argued in favor of armed intervention. Then there was the horror and shame that came from America's failure to intervene in Rwanda. By the end of the decade, although its instinct was still to consider military intervention a last option, the American left was no longer so monolithically pacifist.

Now, in the aftermath of September 11, pacifists seem like an endangered species. The only difference being, you still read about the spotted owl every now and then.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iraq   

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Surging Into The Abyss

From Foreign Affairs:

Even if the coming "surge" in U.S. combat troops manages to lower the rate of killing in Baghdad, very little in relevant historical experience or the facts of this case suggests that U.S. troops would not be stuck in Iraq for decades, keeping sectarian and factional power struggles at bay while fending off jihadist and nationalist attacks. The more likely scenario is that the Bush administration's commitment to the "success" of the Maliki government will make the United States passively complicit in a massive campaign of ethnic cleansing...

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iraq   International Relations   

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Paradigm Shift?

Daniel Byman's got an intriguing op-ed in the WaPo about Iran's strategic interests in Iraq. He uses the example of Hezbollah in Lebanon to argue that Iran's arming of various Iraqi factions (a point which he takes for granted) should be understood more as a means of establishing a post-War influence in Iraqi affairs than as an act of aggression towards the US.  He also pointed out that it wouldn't be unheard of for the Iranians to enter into tactical alliances with Sunni groups if it served their longer-term strategic goals, as their sponsorship of both Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza demonstrate. But what really caught my eye was this:

Ironically, Iran's long-term position could weaken when the United States draws down its forces. At first, the U.S. withdrawal will expand the power vacuum and Iran will try to fill it, but the limited chaos Iran foments can easily become uncontrolled. Iran's economic and military power is limited, and Iran's theocratic model of governance has little appeal for most Iraqis. Even many Shiite militants have at times been hostile to Iran, and respected moderates such as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani are careful to maintain their distance from Tehran. Sunnis already rage against perceived Iranian dominance.

In a postwar environment, Tehran will have lost a lever against U.S. pressure and may find itself both overextended and vulnerable in Iraq -- a weakness that the United States might exploit in years to come.

This is the second time in a few weeks that I've seen someone suggest that the worst-case scenarios of an American withdrawal from Iraq are far from inevitable, and may reflect a failure of imagination as much as anything else. Something tells me it won't be the last.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iran   Iraq   

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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Now That's What I Call Helping

Apparently one of the reasons Condie Rice snuck into Baghdad today was to pressure Iraqi PM Maliki to crack down on Sadr City, Moqtada al-Sadr's Baghdad fiefdom, and not just the Sunni neighborhoods that have already been Surged:

...the Iraqi side argued that Sadr has been cooperating with authorities on security issues lately and that the government should not "waste our resources on a place that's stable."

Getting out of town = co-operating. Classic.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Absolute Power Zones

The Times has got this article describing the two years an Iraqi Sunni spent in an American detention facility. Needless to say, it ain't pretty: stun guns, exposure to cold and heat, 24 days in a pitch-black solitary confinement cell.

Now, this is the kind of story that, sadly, I think we've all grown somewhat accustomed to hearing about. Often it's used to condemn America's slow slide into a torture-sponsoring state, and rightly so. But I'd like to put it into a slightly different context.

Because as much as this kind of abuse has to do with official American policy, it also has to with the fundamental danger of creating environments where one or several individuals have absolute, unchecked power over the physical person of another. What I call in the title of this post, Absolute Power Zones.

Whether it's American soldiers abusing detainees in the GWOT, or Russian soldiers forcing younger recruits into male prostitution, or American prisoners raping other prisoners, the common thread is the existence of physical perimeters within which there is no oversight. Where society is either unable or unwilling to restrain the strong and protect the weak. With the result that there is nothing to limit the victimization of the latter by the former.

The abuses that take place within them might originate in the darker regions of human nature. But they are exacerbated by institutions that manipulate, encourage, or overlook them.

State-sponsored torture is just one example of a much wider phenomenon. A particularly egregious example, because of the state's singular responsibilities as holder of the "monopoly of legitimate violence". But as long as we countenance legal black holes of any kind, disavowing state-sanctioned torture won't be enough.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Human Rights   Iraq   

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Friday, February 16, 2007

The Surge's Early Results

One thing it's important to keep in mind over the course of the next few weeks, as the first articles about it (like this one or this one) start appearing, is that in its initial phases the surge in Baghdad is going to have some very positive results. There will be less violence, more visible signs of law & order, and a sense of hope will probably prevail. Bush, I'm sure, will get a bump in the opinion polls, and the Dems will be made to look like party-poopers who'd rather see the plan fail than be wrong about it.

All that's to be expected because it's not in anyone's interest to engage the American and Iraqi forces that are finally, after four years, securing Baghdad. To begin with, most of the violence in Baghdad itself was internecine or sectarian, and had nothing to do with us. Besides that, the Iraqi troops that are taking part in the surge are in many cases simply uniformed wings of the Shiite militias they're supposed to be policing.

But none of that will actually mean that the surge is actually a tactical success. Remember, the Shiites have been waiting a long time for payback. In some cases, like Moqtada al-Sadr's, for generations. Remember, too, that this won't be the first time Moqtada put his guns down. So they can afford to wait some more.

Hell, they might even wait until we eventually do leave Iraq. But then the only thing the surge will have accomplished is to provide some cover for us to save face while we pull up stakes. But that's really all we're fighting for at this point.

Update: Of course, this should come as no surprise either:

Sunni insurgents have been streaming out of Baghdad to escape the security crackdown, carrying the fight to neighboring Diyala province where direct fire attacks on Americans have nearly doubled since last summer, U.S. soldiers say.

So there you have it. The insurgents are doing what insurgents do when counterinsurgents do what counterinsurgents do. That wasn't so hard, now, was it?

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Friday, February 16, 2007

The End Of The Bubble

I talked yesterday about how the tactics being applied in Iraq, ie. Clear and Move On, will become America's regional strategy in the event of a war with Iran. All it takes is a look at the ways in which the geo-political landscape has been altered over the past six years to understand why it won't work.

In January 2001, the United States was an often resented, but widely admired and respected superpower wielding a historically unprecedented global influence. Rightly or wrongly, we occupied a perceived position of moral leadership among the global community, which when coupled with our economic, diplomatic and military power made our involvement decisive in every continent.

Russia was too busy shaking down the oligarchs who had made off with all of the Soviet Union's industrial infrastructure and most of the Western world's capital infusion to spend much time on projecting its power abroad. China, while a looming economic giant, seemed fatally compromised by its abysmal human rights record to ever be more than a regional power. Chavez had his hands full holding onto power in Venezuela. And Iran was constrained to the role of regional troublemaker and spoiler in the Middle East.

If America faced a potential threat to its position of global hegemon, it was the prospect of an increasingly integrated and assertive European Union trying to contest it on the international stage.

Fast forward six years to January 2007...

Read the full post>>

Posted by Judah in:  China   Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iran   Iraq   Russia   

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Tactics Are The Strategy

It's hard to get into the heads of the neocon clique that's itching for war with Iran. If the definition of crazy is doing the same thing and expecting a different result, they would certainly seem to qualify. But it would be a mistake to write them off as a bunch of lunatics. These guys are not crazy. They got the result they wanted in Iraq. And they're looking for more of the same in Iran.

The fact is, Iraq is a catastrophe, but it's a manageable catastrophe. The only thing that threatens our continued occupation there is American public opinion. And it's become clear that Americans want to call it a wash and pull up stakes. Which is why attacking Iran has now become essential: in order to create the conditions that make a continued American garrison in the Persian Gulf a necessity.

But what about all the dire warnings we've heard about Iran's capacity for reprisal, through missile strikes on our carriers, through proxies in Iraq, and with the threat Hezbollah poses to Israel? They're overblown. Yes, there will be an initial wave of casualties, perhaps even severe casualties. But it will eventually recede once a massive aerial bombardment campaign deteriorates the Iranian regime's command and control capabilities, as well as their military-industrial infrastructure.

But then what? Between the civil wars in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and potentially Iran, most of the region will be a chaotic, deadly mess. And in that kind of geopolitical climate, the United States will be obligated to maintain a permanent garrison (probably in the order of what we already have stationed in Iraq, with a quick-strike capacity to respond to flashpoints of conflict as they spring up around the region) in order to guarantee the security of our Arab allies and Israel.

Mission accomplished.

The traditional counterinsurgency tactics of Clear, Hold, and Rebuild, as put into practice in Iraq, have become Clear and Move On. It's time to realize that this is no accident. The tactics have become the strategy, and the strategy is about to be widened to a regional level.

More later on why it won't work.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iran   Iraq   

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

My Enemy's Enemy?

Here's some breaking news that should give us pause. According to the Guardian, a terrorist attack in southeastern Iran that killed 11 Revolutionary Guard members is being blamed on a Sunni terrorist outfit linked to al-Qaeda.

Any way you parse this, you end up with the Bush administration being full of crap. Why? Well, for starters, they've spent the last few weeks claiming the Iranians are arming the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. The same Sunni insurgency that they've repeatedly claimed is a branch of al-Qaeda. The same al-Qaeda that they've repeatedly claimed is an operationally integrated organization.

Now obviously, all three of these claims can't logically co-exist with one another. At least not back here in the real world. I'm curious to see which one they're willing to cut loose.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Iran   

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

She Stoops To Conquer?

This from the NY Times:

Fewer than 3 in 10 people ages 17 to 24 are fully qualified to join the Army. That means they have a high school diploma, have met aptitude test score requirements and fitness levels, and would not be barred for medical reasons, their sexual orientation or their criminal histories.

So what's an Army feeling the strain of two wars to do? Why, grant more waivers, of course:

During that time, the Army has employed a variety of tactics to expand its diminishing pool of recruits. It has offered larger enlistment cash bonuses, allowed more high school dropouts and applicants with low scores on its aptitude test to join, and loosened weight and age restrictions.

It has also increased the number of so-called “moral waivers” to recruits with criminal pasts, even as the total number of recruits dropped slightly. The sharpest increase was in waivers for serious misdemeanors, which make up the bulk of all the Army’s moral waivers. These include aggravated assault, burglary, robbery and vehicular homicide.

The number of waivers for felony convictions also increased, to 11 percent of the 8,129 moral waivers granted in 2006, from 8 percent.

Waivers for less serious crimes like traffic offenses and drug use have dropped or remained stable. 

I guess at least the folks driving around Baghdad have something to be thankful for. Which is better than nothing at all, as this video demonstrates.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Say What?   

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Monday, February 12, 2007

That Should Do The Trick

What if all the laws Congress passed were this concise?

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Encyclopedia Brown On The Case

It looks like we're going to have to add another three-letter acronym to our vocabulary in a hurry, because after WMD's and IED's, we're now going to be hearing quite a bit about EFP's (explosively formed penetrators).

A good part of the case laid out by American intelligence supposedly proving that Iran has been supplying Iraqi insurgents with mortar shells and RPG's is based on the weapons' serial numbers:

The shells had serial numbers in English in order to comply with international standards for arms, the officials said. One grenade, for instance, was marked with the serial number P.G.7-AT-1 followed by LOT:5-31-2006. The officials said that the serial numbers clearly identified the grenade as being of Iranian manufacture and the date showed that it had been made in 2006.

Now, here's a question that no one seems to have asked, but that I'm trying to get answered. Is it possible to manufacture these weapons without the serial numbers, or with falsified ones, or to in some other way get around the international weapons standards? And if so, is it likely that the Iranians would leave such an obvious fingerprint on their work? I'll post the answer as soon as I get one.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   Media Coverage   

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Strategic Recovery

Lt. Gen. William Odom (Ret'd) on Iraq:

The first and most critical step is to recognize that fighting on now simply prolongs our losses and blocks the way to a new strategy. Getting out of Iraq is the pre-condition for creating new strategic options...

Second, we must recognize that the United States alone cannot stabilize the Middle East.

Third, we must acknowledge that most of our policies are actually destabilizing the region...

Fourth, we must redefine our purpose. It must be a stable region, not primarily a democratic Iraq...

Realigning our diplomacy and military capabilities to achieve order will hugely reduce the numbers of our enemies and gain us new and important allies. This cannot happen, however, until our forces are moving out of Iraq...

If Bush truly wanted to rescue something of his historical legacy, he would seize the initiative to implement this kind of strategy. He would eventually be held up as a leader capable of reversing direction by turning an imminent, tragic defeat into strategic recovery.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iraq   

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Politics Ends At The Water's Edge?

Thanks to TPM for the link to this article about Aussie Prime Minister John Howard's broadside against the Dems in general, and Barack Obama in particular. Howard warned that Obama's deadline for withdrawing US troops from Iraq by March, 2008, would "...encourage those who wanted completely to destabilise and destroy Iraq...", adding:

If I was running al-Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008, and pray, as many times as possible, for a victory not only for Obama, but also for the Democrats. 

This is obviously a violation of diplomatic protocol, which looks askance at endorsing candidates in a sovereign state's elections, especially an ally's. It'll be interesting to see the White House's reaction, all the more so in light of Dems' very strong response to Hugo Chavez's UN remarks last year.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iraq   Politics   

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Levin On The Case

I mentioned yesterday, with regard to the Senate investigation into Douglas Feith's pre-War intel shenanigans, that who was told what and under whose instuction looked like it might be the lead to follow. Well, it looks like Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services committee, is going to go after Stephen Hadley and Scooter Libby, two of the guys briefed by Feith's team, next. The White House usually resists having its aides questioned by Congress, so this could get interesting.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Constant Partial Engagement

Josh Marshall made the point at the end of a recent post that however disastrous our Iraq adventure turns out to be, we as a country will survive it. It's a point that bears repeating: Contrary to the fear-mongering of the past four years, America does not face an existential threat. Neither in al Qaeda or Iraq.

And as important as it is to contain the fallout of the Iraq War, the same holds true should the neocons get their wish for a military confrontation with Iran. The danger of such a confrontation is not so much Iran's capacity for response, which though greater than Iraq's will remain limited and asymmetric. America as a nation will survive them. But at what cost?

The neocons' grand vision for re-making the Middle East into a liberal democracy has been exposed for the collective hallucination that it was. But that pipedream was always a cover for a more realistic project: The conversion of American society to a permanent wartime footing.

A regional shooting war pitting America vs. Iran will result, not in a major conflagration, but in a series of explosive incidents, some more sustained than others, requiring the constant partial engagement of America's military. This at a time when our Armed Forces are already straining from the attrition of four years of war, and having difficulty replenishing both their ranks and hardware.

Of course, America has the excess productive capacity to repair its military, as demonstrated by the staggering $480 billion Pentagon budget for 2008. The figure grows to $715 billion when the supplemental budget requests for the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, as well as global anti-terrorism operations, are factored in.

That represents 6% of US estimated GDP, roughly double what Russia and China, our two principle stragetic rivals for global influence, devote to their military spending. A sustained conflict with Iran would obviously only widen the gap, while making the reinstitution of the draft inevitable.

The question isn't whether or not America, the economy, can sustain it. It can. The question is whether America, the nation, can. I, for one, have my doubts.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iraq   International Relations   Iran   

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Friday, February 9, 2007

Stormy Weather

We've all heard alot about the Iraq War's ramifications on the regional balance of power in the Middle East. Not so much has been mentioned, though, about two other major consequences it's had on the broader geopolitical chessboard. Namely, the widening divergence between Europe's regional interests and our own, and the increasingly aggressive posture taken by the Russians vis à vis American militarism. Throw in an Iranian regime cagily seeking to leverage any advantage it can, an Indian economy glowing red-hot, and the international ambitions of the Chinese and you've got the makings of a multi-polar counterweight to American unilateralism.

The glue that could conceivably hold it all together? Natural gas. Specifically, Iran and Russia's abundance of it, and the European, Indian and Chinese markets for it. Between China and India's energy appetite, Europe's desire to diversify its gas supplies, Iran's need to peel off allies in its regional rivalry with the US, and Russia's interest in both securing energy markets and countering America's influence in Eurasia, there are all the makings of a perfect storm.

Oh, and... guess who plays the boat?

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iraq   International Relations   Iran   

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Friday, February 9, 2007

Feith Changed His Briefs

The Senate Armed Services Committee sparred today over what to make of the Pentagon Inspector General's report on the Office of Special Plans, Douglas Feith's pre-War intelligence-cooking unit at the Defense Dept. The report's key finding? The operation was authorized, because it was directed by Dep. Sec. of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz.

...however, we believe the actions were inappropriate because a policy office was producing intelligence products and was not clearly conveying to senior decision-makers the variance with the consensus of the Intelligence Community.

Thomas F. Gimble, the Pentagon’s acting inspector general, refused to be pinned down by either side, but he did offer up this intriguing morsel:

However, Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, drew from Mr. Gimble a statement that Mr. Feith had not been entirely consistent in his intelligence briefings, in ways Mr. Gimble said he could not go into for security reasons.

“He changed the briefing for his audience?” Mr. Reed asked

“There were adjustments made depending on the audience,” Mr. Gimble replied.

Both Carl Levin, the Armed Services committee chair, and Jay Rockefeller, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, have indicated they're going to follow up aggressively on the report's findings. Who was told what, and by whose instructions, seems like a pretty good place to start.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Friday, February 9, 2007

Where Are They Now?

We read alot at the time about the Coalition Provisional Authority's hiring practices: High-level appointees vetted for partisan loyalty, and young staffers, often fresh out of college or grad school, recruited by the Heritage Foundation. Well, with Paul Bremer back in the news, testifying before Congress about the disappearance of Benjamins by the plane-load, I thought it might be interesting to find out what's become of the freshfaced graduates of the CPA. Call it a Facebook for the unsung heroes of the Iraq Occupation.

Only trouble is, there doesn't seem to be a single document online listing the CPA personnel. No staff directory on the CPA homepage, no news references. I'll keep digging on this one. In the meantime, if anyone's got a link or a lead, drop it in the comments or e-mail me.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Thursday, February 8, 2007

The Other Surge

According to McClatchy, one out of every seven Iraqis has been displaced by the war, either relocating within Iraq, or seeking refugee status abroad. Estimates put the number at up to two million refugees in neighboring states, with up to 1.7 million internally displaced within Iraq. So what measures has the Bush administration taken to shoulder some of the responsibility for what's becoming a humanitarian crisis? Well, the numbers pretty much speak for themselves:

  1. 2007 supplemental funding for Iraq War: $170 billion.
  2. 2007 supplemental funding for Iraqi refugees: $15 million.
  3. 2008 budget request for IraqWar: $140 billion.
  4. 2008 budget request for Iraqi refugees: $35 million.
  5. Estimated number of Iraqis displaced each month: 40,000.
  6. Iraqi refugees admitted into the US since 2003: 466.
  7. Maximum number of Iraqi refugees to be admitted in 2007: 20,000.

This is beyond shameful.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, February 8, 2007

Tomorrow's Jihadists Today

Ezra Klein is right: The recent rash of downed helicopters in Iraq shows what a valuable training ground for aspiring insurgents Iraq has proven to be, just like Afghanistan was before it. Which leads me to wonder. Between the Shiite militias in the infiltrated Iraqi Army, and the Sunni insurgents in the field, is there any enemy, potential or real, that we're not training?

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Tit For Tat?

Here's a story that will undoubtedly pick up steam, and I've got a hunch sooner rather than later. An Iranian diplomat, Jalal Sharafi, was abducted on Sunday in Baghdad by up to 30 armed men in Iraqi Army uniforms. Sound familiar? Maybe that's because of the incident in Karbala in late January, when four US soldiers were abducted and killed by a group masquerading as American GI's. American officials were quick to suggest Iranian involvement after that attack. So it should come as no surprise that in calling for Sharafi's release, Iran has put the blame for his abduction directly at America's feet.

Four Iraqi military officers are already in custody for the abduction, but questions remain about whose orders they were carrying out. Iraq and the US both deny any involvement, with the Iraqi Foreign Minister adding an expression of embarassment at the country's failure to uphold its obligation to protect the foreign diplomatic corps.

Now, I'm not sure which would be more alarming, this being an American operation, or the work of a rogue element within the Iraqi Army. The consequences of American involvement seem pretty clear: Escalation of the simmering proxy war between us and Iran.

But if this turns out to be an Iraqi job, it could mean that an internal conflict is brewing between Iraqi Shiites who embrace Iran and those who don't. At which point, there will be very little left of an Iraqi state to support. Whichever way this one heads, it's going to open up a can of worms.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   International Relations   Iran   

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Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Cut & Stay

Not too long ago, in the comments section of the highly recommended site Voices of Reason, I suggested a tactical solution to the Iraq War quagmire. As I put it there:

There is an option no one's mentioned, which is probably the best strategic option, even if it is unpalatable and unlikely:

The U.S. withdraws its reduced troop presence to an outpost in the Iraqi desert somewhere, from which it guarantees the "autonomy" of the Iraqi government, and the "stability" of the region in general, leaving day-to-day patrolling to the Iraqis.

In other words, remove ourselves from the line of fire, without relinquishing a necessary presence to save a semblance of geo-political face.

So it's gratifying to see Edward Luttwak propose the exact same thing, using the eminently more dignified term "Disengagement", in an op-ed in today's Times. Now to go treat my shoulder for "Patting myself on the back" syndrome.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iraq   Politics   

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Tuesday, February 6, 2007

To Bind Or Not To Bind?

I admit I've been a bit dismissive of the Battle of the Non-Binding Resolutions going on in the Senate. It seems to me like a waste of time and political energy that could be spent either putting the brakes on a war with Iran, going after Cheney to cut the legs out from under Bush, defining a strategic plan for a way to eventually extricate us from Iraq, or all of the above.

E.J. Dionne seems to think otherwise, and Kevin Drum agrees with him. Their argument is that shifting public opinion on something of this magnitude happens in baby steps, and the vote of no-confidence, if passed, will have a major impact on swinging opinion towards not just opposing the surge, but to ending the war.

I'm not so sure that we should be rushing in that direction, though. After all, we already started this war without a plan. The least we could do is come up with one to end it. But maybe I'm a bit tone deaf on this one since I'm not stateside. Anyone?

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Monday, February 5, 2007

Syria's Fifteen Minutes Of Fame

You've got to take anything anyone says about Iraq right now with a grain of salt, but this interview with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is definitely an eye-opener. Not really for anything he says, which is relatively boilerplate stuff, but the way he says it. Here's his response to whether Syria can stop the violence in Iraq:

First of all, the problem in Iraq is political, and talking to Syria as a concept means talking to all the other parties inside Iraq and outside Iraq. We're not the only player. We're not the single player, but we are the main player in this issue, and our role is going to be through supporting the dialogue between the different parties inside Iraq with the support from the other parties like the Americans and the other neighboring countries and any other country in the world. So that's how we can stop the violence. [Emphasis added.]

Another one that jumped out at me:

Sawyer: But in America they believe that you are all powerful, and you say the word and the border will stop.

Assad: Powerful is different from being omnipotent — power that you can control everything completely. You cannot control your border with Mexico, can you? You're the greatest power in the world, you cannot control it with Mexico, so how do you want Syria to control its border with Iraq?

And while we're on the topic of that famous porous border and what it represents, there's more to it than meets the eye. This Joshua Landis article describes in depth some of the logic behind Syria's past policy of openness towards Iraqi refugees, which was based on Baathist pan-Arab nationalism, as well as some of the reasons they've recently drastically altered that policy, much to Iraq's chagrin. He concludes a thorough analysis of Syria's motivation with this:

Syria will continue to seek improved ties with as many parties as possible in Iraq. It is genuinely fearful of the consequences of a meltdown and the failure of Washington's mission to bolster the present government. It does not like America's presence in Iraq, but for the time being neither does it want the US to fail in keeping the government afloat. As Foreign Minister Muellem declared a few weeks ago, Syria does not want American troops to withdraw precipitously, although, it does want to be included in talks.

Syria's recent policy shift toward Iraq underlines how futile and self-destructive Washington's policy of excluding Syria has become. US prospects of stabilizing the situation in Iraq are not good, but without cooperating from Syria, they are surely worse than they have to be. Syria shares many of Washington's objectives in Iraq - not all, to be sure, but enough to make cooperation the only wise policy.

But even if everyone gets on the same page and agrees that turning Syria is the strategic key to mitigating the disaster we've created in Iraq, that begs the question, Is it possible? Steve Clemons seems to think so:

Bashar al-Assad and the clique of nine who surround him and are the real decision-makers inside Syria are also self-preservationist/realists. Some in this clique are modernist reformers and others are nefarious thugs, but they are all ultra-rational...

Reform should always be on the table of American negotiators... but there are things that we can offer al-Assad and his backers to move them on a Libya-like course.

We need to drop our counter-productive obsessions with regime change and do a deal that offers Syria's rationalists an arrangement that meets their needs and begins to turn our fortunes a more positive direction in the Middle East.

I've said it before, but it's worth repeating. This administration is busy encouraging everyone within Iraq to settle their differences through negotiations and the political process. It's advice we'd do well to follow ourselves.

Update: Just to make it clear, none of the above is intended to make the Syrians out to be choir boys. Apparently things are heating up behind the scenes in Lebanon, with both the CIA and Syrian intelligence upping the ante in the power struggle between Hezbollah and the Siniora government. (Thanks again to Joshua Landis.)

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iraq   

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Monday, February 5, 2007

The Surge Protectors

Today's Washington Post has an interesting article about the group of junior officers that makes up Gen. David Petraeus' war council. They've all got PhD's and Iraq tours under their belts, and a couple of them were field commanders responsible for some of the few universally acclaimed operations of the post-Mission Accomplished phase of the war.

What jumped out at me, however, was the presence of Australian army officer and degreed anthropologist, Lt. Col. David Kilcullen. Kilcullen, you might recall, got some attention last fall with the counter-insurgency field manual he wrote for the US Army entitled, "Twenty-eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-level Counterinsurgency." It's a highly readable, informative document that's worth a look.

These guys are all sharp, experienced, creative and educated, presumably the guys who should have been running the show from day one. So why are they willing to take a handoff now, when consensus has it that it's too little, too late? One of Kilcullen's major contributions to modern counterinsurgency doctrine is his appreciation of the role played by global communications. So:

  1. Look for a more skillful use of the media, including a campaign highlighting the dynamic changes sweeping Baghdad, leading to
  2. A second-phase escalation once the Baghdad Surge has borne some fruit. 

Call it a hunch, but you don't send your all-stars in to run out the clock. This is just a warm-up for Surge Two.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Sunday, February 4, 2007

Needed Clarification

Nothing like trying to explain what's going on in American politics to folks who aren't following it in obsessive detail to put into context exactly what's at stake. Last night I spent the evening with a couple friends, one English, one Dutch. And when I got to the part about the American people being strongly opposed to the troop buildup in Iraq, and the American Congress being strongly opposed to the troop buildup in Iraq, and then finished with the part about the President following through on the troop buildup in Iraq, the response was quizzical, to say the least.

Of course, both English and Dutch public opinion was largely opposed to those countries' involvement in the Iraq War, which did not prevent both parliaments from eventually giving their approval. But a head of state acting in the face of both the people's and Congress' opposition to a measure is generally what's construed by most democratic traditions as tyranny.

I went on to explain that there was some confusion over who has the Constitutional authority to end a war, which is admittedly a simplification. Nevertheless, the Englishman's response was right on the money, something along the lines of, "Well, I suppose this is necessary to straighten it all out, then, isn't it?"

Isn't it, indeed.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   Iraq   

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Sunday, February 4, 2007

Getting Back To The Constitution

Hillary Clinton made headlines yesterday by declaring at the DNC Winter Meeting, "If we in Congress don't end this war before January 2009, as President, I will." Forceful, categoric, and obviously aimed to pre-empt criticism of her vote for the Iraq War resolution back in 2002.

All fine and good. What I'd like to see, though, is a Statement of Common Principles committing all the Democratic candidates, if elected, to return the executive branch to the limits of Consitutional authority. What would it look like? Well, for starters, I'd include the following:

  1. An immediate closing of GITMO.
  2. The right to trial in open court for all GWOT detainees.
  3. The categorical repudiation of torture, including inhumane treatment, for interrogation practices.
  4. The repudiation of extraordinary rendition for all GWOT detainees.
  5. The repudiation of all forms of domestic warrantless surveillance.
  6. The repudiation of elective war as an arm of US foreign policy.
  7. The return to executive transparency by limiting national security classification to a strict minimum.

As terrible a humanitarian and policy disaster as it's been, the Iraq War is in many ways only a symptom of the Bush administration's assault on the separation of powers as laid out in the Constitution. And as much as anything else, the Democratic candidates need to make it clear that they're committed to remedying that.

Posted by Judah in:  Domestic Policy   Foreign Policy   Iraq   Politics   

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Saturday, February 3, 2007

When Borders Fail

Josh Marshall has a good post on some of the difficulty involved in trying to tease out who's doing what to sponsor the factional and sectarian infighting in Iraq. And then he closes with this:

But this gets to a deeper fallacy of the line of argument about neighboring countries 'meddling' in Iraq. Every shred of the failure that is Iraq bleeds over into the neighboring states, either as a threat or an opportunity, since they are all of the same fabric, or rather the same patchwork bleeding over national borders. The Sunnis with their coreligionists in Saudi Arabia; the Shia with theirs in Iran; the Kurds with theirs in southeastern Turkey whose affinity threatens to bring the Turks down into Iraq as well. The more we fail in Iraq, the more the threads we pull will pull into neighboring states. In other words, our inability to come to terms with and deal wtih what we have created in Iraq will almost inevitably lead to a widening gyre of escalation across Iraq's frontiers. I take it that this is what the Iraq Study Group folks were talking about when they spoke of the bleak outlook in Iraq and the necessity of getting quickly to some regional negotiations rather than trying to fight our way out of this box.

We're used to thinking of buffer states, like Kashmir or Iraq, as flashpoints for violence. But there are other more cooperative models for dealing with demographic realities that overtake geographic borders. (California and Texas spring to mind, where despite protectionist reactions, Mexicans and Americans on both sides of the border continue to take advantage of economic opportunites to create a web of inter-dependence.)

Here's a thought experiment: Imagine a scenario where Iraqi Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds were dying in the thousands, but the cause was not a civil war but a deadly earthquake. No one would question the outpouring of aid and support that would immediately start flowing in from across the borders in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. That's the difference between a humanitarian crisis and sectarian warfare.

The key to extricating ourselves from Iraq while leaving behind the semblance of a stable state is to de-militarize the situation. And the only way to do that is to start dialoguing with the other regional players, ie. Iran. Right now, we're pressuring the Sunnis to accept less of the cake than they were used to under Saddam, in exchange for more of the cake than they'll get through war with the Shiites. Seems like pretty good advice for us, too.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iraq   

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Saturday, February 3, 2007

Must Read McClatchy

It just occured to me as I was clicking the "Must Read" checkbox on yet another McClatchy News Service article that these guys have been doing some of the best reporting on Iraq & Iran out there. Plus, they've got a bunch of "inside Iraq" blogs, from both Iraqi journalists and Iraqi-based American reporters. If you're not already checking in with them, you should be.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   Media Coverage   

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Friday, February 2, 2007

Missed Opportunity

Meanwhile, instead of unanimously confirming Petraeus and then passing a resolution repudiating his strategy, why didn't the Armed Services committee make Bush parade a series of generals before them, getting every last one of them on record as to what chance they gave Surge-lite to succeed? That way they could have forced Bush to implement his excercise in futility with a commander on the ground who doesn't support it, making it clear where the blame lies when it bites the dust.

When are Congressional Dems going to realize that business as usual means losing? Trying to stop Bush's last move is a waste of time. Go on the offensive. The country needs it.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Friday, February 2, 2007

Are There Cliff Notes?

From the rollout of "Soldier Handbook: Surviving Iraq", the Army's new "how to" manual designed to help grunts make it past the increased casualty rate of the first 100 days of a unit's deployment:

Among other recommendations, many Soldiers recommended:

  • Staying aware of their surroundings,
  • Listening to their leaders,
  • Avoiding routine or predictable patterns,
  • Following standard operating procedures, and
  • Using protective gear and armored vehicles.

The handbook will be made available in paper format this month.

Just in time for the Surge.

Update: Something just jumped out at me on a re-read. How do you manage to avoid routine patterns while following standard operating procedures?

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Say What?   

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Thursday, February 1, 2007

Taking Down The Veep

Here's a thought: It's clear that impeaching Bush is a non-starter. But remember that Senate investigation on pre-War intelligence? The one where in exchange for greenlighting a preliminary report scapegoating the various spook agencies for bad intelligence, Senate Dems wrangled a follow-up investigation (yet to happen) on how the administration manipulated the intelligence to make their case for war?

Well, it's always been pretty clear to people who followed it closely that the Iraq misinformation campaign was run out of the Office of the Vice President. So what if instead of going after the follow-up investigation in committee, Congressional Dems use an impeachment proceeding against Dick Cheney to shine some light on the matter? Given his polling numbers, Congressional Republicans don't have much to gain by sticking their necks out for him, and he can't be wrapped in the commander-in-chief blanket like Bush can. So I imagine he'd make a vulnerable target. It would be an extremely aggressive way for the legislative branch to make it clear that there are consequences for executive overreach. And it would have the added advantage of depriving Bush of his hit man, which usually reveals bullies for the cowards they are.

Finally, the timing couldn't be better, since it might keep the administration from pulling pages out of that particular playbook to start a war with Iran. What do you say? Can it fly?

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   Politics   

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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Biden Blows It?

Lost in the controversy over Joe Biden's assessment of Barack Obama in today's New York Observer is the central claim he makes in the interview, namely that none of the other Democratic candidates have got a clue, much less a strategic plan, for dealing with Iraq.

Biden is on record for partitioning Iraq into three autonomous regions, with a central government responsible for policing borders and distributing oil revenue. Regional players like Iran and the Saudis would be involved to help control the chaos of the resulting ethnic displacement. The Kurds would be on their own in the event they tried to break off, ie. at the mercy of the Turks and Iranians.

The plan has got its supporters (Chuck Shumer and the Brookings Institution's Michael O'Hanlon) as well as its detractors (notably Wesley Clark and Richard Perle). It sounds like managed ethnic cleansing to me. Unfortunately, that might be the best we and the Iraqis can hope for at this point.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iraq   Politics   

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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Resisting The Wrong War

I can't help but think that Congressional Democrats are wasting their time and seriously overplaying their hand with the anti-escalation resolutions. Yes, Americans are strongly opposed to sending more troops. But Bush's Surge-lite is such a pathetically insignificant measure, it was practically an admission of defeat in and of itself.

A lot of factors contributed to making a show of toughness too tempting to resist, not least of which was the Democrats' desire to show they're not going to be pushed around by an unpopular, politically isolated, lame-duck President. But instead of drawing blood, Senate Dems are having trouble getting even the strongly-worded Biden/Hagel non-binding resolution passed.

There's only two ways to end the Iraq War while Bush is still in office: cut off the funding and impeachment. Neither one is politically feasible. Besides, cleaning up the mess he's made over there will be the full-time work of at least the next two administrations (if not more), whether there are still American GI's on the ground come January 20, 2009 or not.

So if the Dems really want to stop a war, they should get to work on preventing the one with Iran that's looking more and more likely. And if they really do want to pick a fight, they should make sure it's one they can win.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iraq   

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Guerilla Warfare 101

I'm trying to find some sarcastic way to say what anybody with a shred of common sense knows intuitively. Because you don't need an advance degree from the Army War College to know that when you send in the heavy guns against a guerilla insurgency, you usually come up empty. But all I can come up with is, Read it and weep.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Iran Threat, Real And Imagined

To follow up on a point I made here, for at least a generation or so, it's been something of a truism when talking about the Middle East that a lasting resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the sine qua non of regional stability. Without denying the poisonous impact it's had on the neighborhood, I think that particular conflict has also served as something of a smokescreen to help Arab states mask their own internal faultlines. Faultlines that for the most part (the Iran-Iraq War and the Lebanese Civil War are obvious exceptions) remained manageable for as long as the status quo among the Arab powers held.

One of the original propositions of the Iraq War advocates was that in the aftermath of Sept. 11th, the status quo in the Middle East was no longer acceptable. Invading Iraq was a way to shake things up and see how they re-settled. Of course, what's primarily emerged from our reckless experiment is the threat of Iran as an unchecked regional power. Which has scared the daylights out of all the interested parties, most of whom were doing just fine with business as usual. And one of the big winners of this collective shift of focus has been Israel, who suddenly finds itself spared its traditional role of scapegoat for all the region's problems.

So I don't think it's a big surprise that one of the loudest voices pumping the Iranian threat right now happens to belong to the Israelis. According to this article in the Observer about the pitiful state of the Iranian nuclear effort, the Israelis have mounted a vigorous campaign to convince the major players that 2007 is a red letter year for intervening, despite the fact that Mohammed El-Baradei recently pointed out at the Davos Forum that the Iranians are at least half a decade from being able to produce a nuclear device.

Now Iran's ability to cause trouble is hardly limited to their acquisition of a nuclear weapon. There wouldn't be so many people scrambling to find ways to contain them if that were the case. But there are a variety of ways to accomplish that end without setting off a certain regional conflagration. (Steve Clemons has a post about how the Saudis plan to use the price of oil to take a bite out of Iran's cash flow here.) Here's hoping we explore some of them before it's too late.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iran   Iraq   

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Saturday, January 27, 2007

What A Difference Confirmation Makes

We've got another case of the "Flagging will, happy terrorists" argument, this time from Robert Gates. Here's what he had to say yesterday at a Pentagon news conference about the Congressional resolutions opposing the President's escalation:

“It’s pretty clear that a resolution that in effect says that the general going out to take command of the arena shouldn’t have the resources he thinks he needs to be successful certainly emboldens the enemy and our adversaries...

“I think it’s hard to measure that with any precision, but it seems pretty straightforward that any indication of flagging will in the United States gives encouragement to those folks,” Gates said, referring to the anti-government forces in Baghdad.

Now folks who oppose the war in general and its escalation in particular shouldn't be afraid of this charge, mainly because it's inarguably true, for reasons that I elaborated here. At the same time, I have a hard time believing that the resolution and the gathering opposition to the war that it gives voice to will embolden the enemy any more than the administration's catastrophic management of the war itself already has. For that matter, an argument can be made that the idea of having 20,000 more targets to shoot at, not to mention the satisfaction of knowing they're stretching our military to the breaking point in a damned effort, must give the bad guys some satisfaction too.

And while we're on the subject of boldness, I'd point out that the folks blowing things up in Iraq don't seem any more or less bold to me today than they did a year ago, or two or three or four. As far as I can tell, they're doing the same things now, when most of America wants out, as they were doing back in 2003, when most of America believed we were still going to find nuclear warheads somewhere in Anbar province. Only now, in addition to doing it to us, they're doing it to each other as well.

The President has proposed a plan that most of the country and Congress thinks will make defeat more, rather than less, likely. We'll know soon enough who's right. But if it depends on silencing domestic criticism for success, it's not much of a plan.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Out Of The Spotlight

It occured to me in reading Iason Athanasiadis' article in Asia Times, as well as Issandr El Amrani's opinion piece in Tom Paine (although less in the latter than the former), that one under-reported side-effect of the disarray bordering on civil war in Iraq, and its unleashing of the Iranian boogie-man across the region, is that it has managed to take the heat off Israel in the Arab world. With the exception of the brief but brutal Israeli-Hezbollah standoff last summer, most everyone's been too worried about the Iranians flexing their muscle to pay much attention to Israel.

It would seem to be the ideal time for the Israelis to hammer out some fundamental principles with the Palestinians and the Syrians. If it weren't for the disarray bordering on civil war within the Palestinian Authority, that is. Oh, and the disarray bordering on civil war in Lebanon. Am I forgetting anything?

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iraq   

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Fighting Words, Losing Words

So what about the line of argument that goes, "Dissent emboldens our enemies, whose tactical aim, given their inability to defeat us on the battlefield, is to weaken our resolve"? That opposition to the war is the only thing that will cause us to lose the war? That we're talking ourselves into defeat in Iraq, as Daniel Henninger argues in a WSJ Opinion piece? Let's take them one at a time.

To begin with, yes, the primary tactical aim of any guerilla insurgency against an occupying power is to weaken domestic resolve to continue the occupation. And it seems pretty hard to argue that the folks setting off car bombs and IED's in Iraq aren't encouraged by the growing level of opposition to the war in this country. Certainly they must consider it a sign that they are nearing their goal of getting us to leave, which must in turn embolden them in some way.

So is opposition to the war to blame for us losing the war? If you define defeat by withdrawal, then obviously the answer is yes. The Iraqi insurgency cannot militarily force America to withdraw its troops from Iraq in the same way, say, that America and the Gulf War Coalition forced Saddam Hussein to withdraw his from Kuwait. But in most military campaigns, defeat precedes withdrawal. In some, it precedes the initial deployment. And I think the Iraq War is one these campaigns.

Because so far, domestic opposition to the war hasn't interfered in any way with the war's prosecution. If we are failing to achieve our goals in Iraq, as just about everybody but Dick Cheney now agrees is the case, it is mainly because: 1) we never devised a broad strategy to guide our tactics; and 2) our tactical approach failed to achieve what few narrow goals we did define.

Which brings us to Henninger's piece. Are we talking ourselves into defeat in Iraq? Only someone who believes that we are on our way to achieving our stated goals there, and that for lack of political will we risk leaving those goals unaccomplished, can answer yes to that question. Okay, so make that just about everybody but Dick Cheney and Dan Henninger now agrees: The answer is no.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iraq   

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Bringing Syria To The Table

One thing that seems increasingly clear as a result of the teetering mess that is now Iraq: a strong central government headed by Sunnis was a key to regional stability. Any other arrangement creates wider scale imbalances that invite meddling or outright intervention by Iraq's neighbors. Of course this is the reason that the US so strongly supported Saddam Hussein until his ambition got unmanageable. (Which is neither an endorsement of Hussein or American policy, but simply an observation.)

Now common wisdom has it that our options on the ground range from bleak to grim to catastrophic, with the President having chosen "none of the above" as his response. But I'd argue that our tactical options appear so limited because four years after the initial invasion, we're still playing catch up for faulty planning and have yet to revise or define our broader strategic goals.

So what might those be? There's no putting the genie back in the bottle, and a "democratic" Iraq will never be Sunni-dominated. And as much as we might try negotiating with the Iranians, the truth is we might get some concessions, but they will remain regional rivals whose vested interests will usually be at odds with our own.

But the same can't be said about the Syrians, who stand to greatly benefit from improved relations with the US and eventually Israel. Which is why efforts such as the Swiss attempt to broker peace talks between Syria and Israel described in this article have to be encouraged and rewarded. And why no matter what else happens in Iraq, we need to take advantage of whatever is left of our occupation there to lean on the Syrians and convince them that they have more to gain through cooperation than conflict.

Springing the Syrians from their marriage of convenience with Iran weakens Hezbollah and thereby limits Iran's ability to destabilize Lebanon, as well as threaten Israel's security. A weakened Iran will reassure the Saudis, and possibly contain the threat of Iraq's internal sectarian conflicts spreading beyond its borders.

Will it solve the problems in Iraq? Of course not. But it could lead to a re-configuration in the region's balance of power that mitigates the downside of our failed intervention there. Which is better than nothing at all.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iraq   

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

They Deserve Better

With all the legitimate outrage over the Administration's tactical and strategic bungling of the War in Iraq, and amidst all the horrors and devastation that have been visited on that country as a result, it's easy to lose sight of the countless acts of courage, bravery and generosity that our soldiers carry out every day. Read this story from the Times and you'll see what I mean: American GI's put themselves at enormous risk to save a young girl's life.

Putting aside the obvious usefulness of such a gesture in a counterinsurgency campaign, doesn't it just make you proud to know that four years and God knows how many tours into this quagmire, these young Americans are over there trying to save lives? Doesn't it make your blood boil to read the rest of the article about the civil war they're now refereeing, knowing that their courage and sacrifice are essentially being squandered in the service of an unnecessary and now unwinnable war? For me it does.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Saturday, January 20, 2007

Canary In The Mine

You've got to figure that the Kurds know Iraq a little better than we do. After all, they're Iraqis, despite the fact that they might prefer otherwise. So it doesn't strike me as such a good sign that the Peshmergas-turned-Iraqi regulars who have been Shanghai'd to surge into Baghdad alongside our own GI's are deserting in numbers substantial enough for one Kurdish General to call it "a phenomenon."

"The soldiers don't know the Arabic language, the Arab tradition, and they don't have any experience fighting terror," said Anwar Dolani, a former peshmerga commander who leads the brigade that's being transferred to Baghdad from the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah.

So just how does that distinguish them, say, from the reservists being called up here at home?

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Saturday, January 20, 2007

False Optimism?

Gen. Casey says we ought to see progress in Baghdad in the next 60-90 days, that the city will be measureably safer by summer, and that the troops that are just now "surging" could very well be heading back Stateside by late summer.

After that, maybe they'll get around to the murder rate in New Orleans. Just a thought.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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